The Brain at Different Levels of Consciousness

We’re lucky that while there is much we still don’t know about the brain, there are a few things that are now pretty clear, and which seem to correlate well with the expansion of consciousness: the basic limbic response of “fight or flight” and the role, dominance and ultimate integration of the two hemispheres of the brain. Let’s look at how things seem to play out at the different Levels of Effectiveness.

Fight or Flight—Below the Line

In the first three levels, our strongly ingrained fight-flight-freeze response dominates.  One of the oldest parts of our brain, the limbic system, governs this response. Below the line, when a challenging or negative stimulus comes at us, the brain’s relay center sends messages very quickly to the amygdala, whose job it is to react to perceived threats. (See The Whoosh for more on this phenomenon). The more below the line we are, the more quickly the message gets to the amygdala, causing a fight, flight, or freeze response, depending on the dominant level of consciousness.

The levels increase in energy from one to seven, and here we see this play out in the brain. In the level of Hopelessness, there is very little energy or feeling of efficacy in life, thus the response is often to freeze, to feel overwhelmed, to be unable to cope and therefor shut down. In the level of Fear there is an increase in energy; enough to flee, to find a way to escape the threat, to put up protective barriers and defend oneself. In Frustration, energy increases even more, giving us enough to desire to fight back, to go on the offensive, to attack.

The brain below the line is quickly reactive, and thoughtfulness, rationality, and accurate assessment of “friend or foe” are in short supply. The higher brain, the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), will eventually receive information and come on line to assess the situation, but often long after damage has been done from the amygdala-ruled reactive state.

Fight or Flight—Above the Line

As consciousness increases, the amygdala is still in operation, but the signal to the PFC seems to speed up as well. The PFC helps us assess, plan, and think long term, and when it comes online, chemicals are released that help calm down the fight-flight-freeze reaction. From the levels of Courage and above, the speed at which the PFC is engaged when a limbic response has occurred continues to increase as consciousness itself increases. We may react, but our higher selves will move us toward apology, waiting until we are calm to respond, taking the other person’s point of view, and increasingly simply noticing our reaction as human and letting it go.

In working with this model for the past ten years, we have seen that the gap between automatic reaction and thoughtful response simply gets narrower and narrower as consciousness increases. This means there is less and less clean up to do, less time wasted in blame, and overall, dramatically increased effectiveness. Not only does this (hopefully) seem intuitively correct, it fits with Daniel Goleman’s wonderful work on Emotional Intelligence and its critical role in effectiveness in life.

The Hemispheres of the Brain

Just what the two hemispheres of the brain “do” is a highly debated, very contentious area of neuroscience. It seems that the best current thinking points us not to thewhat, but to the how of the way these distinct parts of our brain operate. And this is, to me, most helpful to understanding their importance from the perspective of consciousness: how the different parts of our brain see the world.

The Right Hemisphere (RH) holds a holistic view. It understands context and meaning, and the parts of us that experience empathy and most emotions (except, notably, anger) live here. At its furthest over-calibration, it is the energy of chaos, of everything at once and nothing distinct.

The Left Hemisphere (LH), by contrast, cares about the individual part and not the whole. It can take something from the totality and bring it into focus to be dealt with. The parts of us that experience the desire to compete, to distinguish ourselves, and to focus intently live here. At its furthest over-calibration, it is the energy of rigidity, of the desire to control things and reduce everything to simple, understandable parts.

What this understanding points us to is the critical importance of both sides of the brain. We need the freedom of chaos and the focus of rigidity. And we believe, as consciousness increases, life more and more flows effortlessly between these two extremes. In the lower levels, we see an over-calibration of one or the other (RH in Hopelessness, LH in Frustration, both in Fear), while in the higher levels the hemispheres seem to become more and more integrated and available for use as needed and appropriate. (Interestingly, this correlates with research on long-term meditators, whose corpus callosum—the interconnection between the two hemispheres—is thicker than average and develops more mass the longer they meditate.)

In addition, hemisphere dominance changes the more one increases consciousness. The LH is traditionally considered the more valuable hemisphere, for its drive, competitiveness and ability to focus. The empathy and holistic view of the RH have traditionally been considered a bit “soft.” It is, however, only by allowing the RH to take the lead, to chart the course, and to set priorities for one’s life such as connection, inclusiveness, love and oneness that the highest levels of consciousness become possible.

Thank you for reading Part Two of Consciousness and the Brain. It is a limited and very incomplete overview of what we at BEabove Leadership think may be happening as we grow, develop and transform. Stay tuned for Part Three—Coaching at the Different Levels of Consciousness.

BEabove Leadership is now offering the Advanced Coaching Series—Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Transformational Coaching. Available to all experienced coaches, registration is open for classes in Minneapolis in August 2012, San Francisco in September 2012, and a residential intensive in Pennsylvania in November 2012.