How to Tell If Your Decisions are From Your Evolved or Primitive Brain
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Decisions can be motivated by thoughtful consideration from our higher mind (frontal lobe/ executive functions), or fear-based survival instincts (amygdala, impulses) from a more primitive mind. When decisions are informed by our higher mind, they are more likely to lead to positive outcomes. Alternatively, decisions driven by survival instincts from the past can hold us back.
John, a successful engineer, had episodes of procrastination, doubt, and panic when making decisions. He would ruminate indecisively. Growing up, John’s dad was anxious and opinionated. Fearful of his dad’s criticism and anger, John tried to stay under the radar, or figure out the “right” answer. As an adult, he re-experienced the fear of a boy facing high stakes and lacking the resources to cope.
Here, the cause of John’s paralysis wasn’t his anxiety, but the loss of access to his higher mind reflective capacities and perspective. Re-experiencing is like an emotional flashback, or dreaming - in that we’re embedded in the story - and lack awareness that it’s only a state of mind.
The effect of hidden fears on decision-making
Compartmentalized fears from childhood can intrude into present-day reactions without our awareness - complicating decisions and clouding judgment. Ingrained reactions, behavior patterns, and inner dialogues - shaped by attachment experiences growing up - are childhood adaptations that develop for emotional survival that can persist out of context, into adulthood.
Similar to an oversensitive smoke detector, alarm reactions can be activated in the absence of actual danger, triggered by situations that unconsciously resemble anxiety-producing situations from the past. When this happens we re-experience overwhelmed states of mind, believing we’re in trouble when we’re not, and underestimating our present day ability to cope.
Typical fears from childhood include fear of:
• being wrong (from having been criticized) • exposure/failure (from having been shamed) • having hope/disappointment (from unpredictability) • being hurt (from unsafety, abuse) • loss/abandonment (from emotional unavailability, loss)• rejection/loss of approval (from criticism, authoritarian parenting)
Using your higher mind to access and control compartmentalized anxiety and fear
In an improved scenario, as John understood what was happening and developed his reflective higher mind, he practiced stepping back, noticing the fear, and recognizing it as an outdated instinct. He learned to catch the anxious, negative inner dialogue and break the spell - taking a walk and listening to music (a non-verbal, right-brain activity) to shift his mindset and disengage from thinking. When calm, he proactively prepared - grounding himself before thinking about his decision. Visualizing the anxious boy he had been, he reminded himself it had been unsafe to be wrong, but that there was no danger now. He was good enough no matter what. The adult in him would make a decision and handle the outcome.
Higher-mind decisions are often different than those driven by fear, but the same decision can be arrived at through either channel. The underlying motivation and mindset can determine how things play out. Decisions motivated by fear can leave us stuck in old patterns. That’s what happened after Debbie’s husband, Dean, tells her they’ve grown apart.
Having grown up with neglect, loss and unpredictability, Debbie reacted by immediately detaching. Unconsciously driven by fear of disappointment and abandonment, she decided to preemptively leave Dean and cut her losses. This decision reinforced her feeling abandoned, and a pattern of anger, mistrust, and uncertainty.
In an improved scenario (higher mind steps in)
Debbie recognized her familiar instinct to run and never depend on anyone. She remembered she couldn’t count on her mom. She reminded herself she’s an adult now and will be okay. There’s no need to run. Debbie worked collaboratively on her marriage, but eventually decided to leave - this time grounded by clarity, perspective, and closure - and not as a victim. Though she experienced loss and sadness, making a decision from her higher mind allowed her to feel more in control, less angry, and freed up to move on.
Primitive fears are driven by perceived loss of security
Primitive psychological fears, formed in primary attachment relationships, are driven by perceived loss of security in relation to others. The security of attachment to a primary caregiver is a basic biological need - shaping brain development, emotional regulation and even gene expression. Children instinctively react to threats to that attachment as a survival threat, becoming dysregulated and seeking equilibrium. Alarm reactions kick in, prompting an instinctive attempt to regulate their own emotional state and their parent’s, thereby protecting the attachment relationship.
Recognizing primitive mindsets
Primitive mindsets are characterized by a feeling of urgency, high stakes, rigidity, and repetitiveness. We can learn to identify these states, and step back to intervene, bringing our higher mind to bear and expanding our capacity to adapt. When we lend our adult knowledge and perspective to these childhood states, we heal ourselves, allowing us to act from strength rather than fear, and have more control over our decision-making and behavior.
Dr. Lynn Margolies is a psychologist in Newton Centre. Her website is drlynnmargolies.com