We can talk about the brain in many ways. In chapter 2, we focused on its two hemispheres, the left and the right. Now we want to look at it from top to bottom, or actually from bottom to top.
Imagine that your brain is a house, with both a downstairs and an upstairs. The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain, from the top of your neck to about the bridge of your nose. Scientists talk about these lower areas as being more primitive because they are responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), for innate reactions and impulses (like fight and flight), and for strong emotions (like anger and fear). Whenever you instinctually flinch because a Little League foul ball flies into the stands, your downstairs brain is doing its job. The same goes for when your face goes red with fury because, after twenty minutes of convincing your kindergartner that the dentist’s office won’t be scary, the dental assistant enters the room and announces in front of your daughter, “We’ll need to give her a shot to numb her.” Your anger—along with other strong emotions and bodily functions and instincts—springs from your downstairs brain. It’s like the first floor of a house, where so many of a family’s basic needs are met. There you’ll almost always find a kitchen, a dining room, a bathroom, and so on. Basic necessities get taken care of downstairs.
Your upstairs brain is completely different. It’s made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts—particularly the ones directly behind your forehead, including what’s called the middle prefrontal cortex. Unlike your more basic downstairs brain, the upstairs brain is more evolved and can give you a fuller perspective on your world. You might imagine it as a light-filled second-story study or library full of windows and skylights that allow you to see things more clearly. This is where more intricate mental processes take place, like thinking, imagining, and planning. Whereas the downstairs brain is primitive, the upstairs brain is highly sophisticated, controlling some of your most important higher-order and analytical thinking. Because of its sophistication and complexity, it is responsible for producing many of the characteristics we hope to see in our kids:
Sound decision making and planning
Control over emotions and body
A child whose upstairs brain is properly functioning will demonstrate some of the most important characteristics of a mature and healthy human being. We’re not saying she’ll be superhuman or never display childish behavior. But when a child’s upstairs brain is working well, she can regulate her emotions, consider consequences, think before acting, and consider how others feel—all of which will help her thrive in different areas of her life, as well as help her family survive day-to-day difficulties.
As you might expect, a person’s brain works best when the upstairs and downstairs are integrated with each other. So a parent’s goal should be to help build and reinforce the metaphorical stairway that connects the child’s upper and lower brain so that the two can work as a team. When a fully functioning staircase is in place, the upper and lower parts of the brain are vertically integrated. That means that the upstairs can monitor the actions of the downstairs and help calm the strong reactions, impulses, and emotions that originate there. But vertical integration works in the other direction, too, with the downstairs brain and the body (the house’s foundation) making important “bottom-up” contributions. After all, we don’t want significant upstairs decisions being made in some sort of vacuum that’s devoid of input from our emotions, our instincts, and our bodies. Instead, we need to consider our emotional and physical feelings—which originate downstairs—before using the upstairs to decide on a course of action. Once again, then, integration allows for a free flow between the lower and higher parts of our brain. It helps build the stairway, so that all the different parts of our brain can be coordinated and work together as a whole.