Understanding the Brain

Brain Basics & Personal development

When it comes to our brain and personal development, a good first step is to learn about the brain and how the mind reflects the brain’s processes so that you know how best to influence your mind. Here is a summary of what you will be learning and applying to your life to further enhance your functioning.


The brain is made up of neurons and glia. The pattern of connections that neurons have with each other determines, among other things, what our automatic thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are. The strength and type of connections that your neuronal network has can change based on experience. This is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. This means that what we experience and how we direct our awareness can impact the constellation of our neural network. That said, the lower you go in the brain, the less malleable it is for experience-dependent neuroplasticity. The subcortical regions are less neuroplastic than the cortical regions. You may find it helpful to take a minute to reflect on what your assumptions are of the possibility for change? And, do you want to change? What might some of the barriers be to change?


Just as physical actions require energy, so does the brain for mental activity as the brain is part of the body as well. The interventions and exercises in this book will be challenging and energy consuming, but just as physical exercise can be challenging yet enjoyable, so can the process of mental exercise be. You will literally be forming new neural connections, creating new habits, and changing ways of thinking and behaving in counselling and psychotherapy. This is one of the reasons why counsellors often start off with teaching stress regulation.


Neurosequentiality is about the sequential and hierarchical way that the brain processes sensory information of what your body experiences. It’s essential to understand this brain function and its effect on personal development. It can either halt our growth or enable it. So, experiences are a collection of sensory information. Sensory information first goes through the bottom of the brain (brainstem), then to the next connected region called the diencephalon, then to the limbic areas, and lastly to the cortex at the top. Each level of the brain needs a different type of treatment to regulate it. The lower levels need to be regulated first because they can dysregulate higher and more complex areas because of the sequential way that sensory information passes through. If a past experience was traumatic, then this forms a memory at the bottom level, and the brain checks the sensory information coming in for any cues similar to the past experience. If there are similarities, then the alarm system is activated. Using thinking techniques for this would largely be ineffective for regulating the lower levels because the bottom of the brain (brainstem) is regulated through movement and sensory stimulation that is simple, soothing, repetitive, and rhythmic. The next brain region (diencephalon) would require the same types of interventions but at a more complex level. The limbic areas need social and emotional interventions. And lastly, the cognitive areas need more insight and perspective-based ways to regulate it.

Two Sensory Processing Routes

For our purposes, there are two main ways that the brain takes in experiences and sensory information. One route is really fast and happens outside of conscious awareness at speeds of 50 to 90 milliseconds. The second way is slower, conscious, and processes information at 250 to 500 milliseconds. The unconscious way that we take in information and experiences is generalized and negatively biased so as to detect threats. This is for survival purposes so that we can react to possible threats as soon as possible.

There is not much context when we initially perceive something and so we tend to see the negative first and make wild associations so we can become aware of possible danger and avoid it. This works great for life and death situations; however, it can be maladaptive when the stresses are not life and death. These sorts of brain responses can put a wall to personal development. The same stress response systems activate for physically dangerous situations as well as for social and emotional adversity. The difference is a matter of degree as to extent the stress response is activated. When a person experiences above moderate anxiety this can impair how well the higher thinking capacities work. The higher thinking capacities can add context and detail to the initial interpretations and expectations from our unconscious processing system. However, when we are stressed, the slow, conscious system doesn’t work as well, so we tend to spiral into negative thinking and broad generalizations which can also lead to behaviour that is based on these initial automatic and unconscious interpretations of reality.

Two Hemispheres

In addition to the top and bottom regions, the brain is also made up of two hemispheres on the left and right side. These have different specializations for most people. The left hemisphere is more grounded in the technical aspects of language, problem-solving, and approach (vs withdrawal) behaviour. The right hemisphere is the neural storehouse of unconscious memories, it develops first, and is more connected with the body, movement, senses, and emotions. The right hemisphere interprets the world in a big picture way, symbolically, and metaphorically. It elicits emotional reactions in response to symbolism in the environment. It is the larger influence of the hemispheres. It stores and processes emotional, somatic, procedural, and sensory information, and is more tied with the amygdala that detects what is salient (particularly danger). It does not do ‘literal’ well. To put it in a nutshell, the right hemisphere is more tied with emotion, and somatic-sensory memories, and the left is more related to analytical, logical, and sequential tendencies.

The Social Brain

As we evolved into mammals, and sub-specifically, primates, our social groups and interactions became more and more complex, which drove the increasing social primacy of our neural architecture that our neural resources became devoted to. Humans have the longest developmental dependency and this reveals the significant influence that culture and environment can also have (along with biology) on the development of our brain. And as a next step, brain development under social influence will have much effect on our personal development.

We require social care and interaction in order to physically survive – not just from being provided with sustenance – but actual physical affection. We are always searching for the job, religion, new ability, or ‘toy’ that will ‘do it’ for us. We do also strive for the intimate relationship that will ‘complete’ us. However, the external attainment is, as we know at least at some level, is not what is needed. It is the change within ourselves that we must strive for to enable us to better connect or accept that connection and love or form an implicit memory of love toward ourselves that may have been lacking during development.

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