by Carl Buchheit, co-founder of NLP Marin, training director and lead facilitator.
First published in Open Exchange magazine (2006)

All over the universe, or so it seems, human beings are famous for routinely experiencing what they most don’t want to have, and for not being able to experience that which they most really do want. As human beings, all of our most stuck patterns of experience, from the slightly embarrassing ones (I always end up watching more TV than I want), to the ones that are actively life-destroying (I just can’t help disrespecting all the people I’ve tried to be partners with) have their source in our brains’ ongoing efforts to keep us well and safe. For us at NLP Marin, this is the most remarkable and amazing thing about humans: that everything we do that doesn’t work is actually the consequence of our brains’ patterning to make sure that we are all OK—both ourselves and the people we care about. But then, how can it be that something so positively and beautifully intended—our natural patterning to be well and happy—can go so terribly, terribly wrong so much of the time?

One of the really important reasons this is still happening for us humans is that, courtesy of creative evolution, we all have more than one brain, and each of them has a different set of instructions and descriptions about what well-being really is. A simplistic but still decent analogy is the issue of “legacy” hardware and software that plagues the computer world. Computer designers and engineers are forever faced with the job of providing their end-users with better tools (more elegance, reliability and functionality, for example) while still making sure that all of the old software can still work with and through the newer hardware designs.

Mother Nature has had a similar task with us humans: how to add functionality, adaptability, and ease-of-use without disinheriting everything that came before, in terms of our neurobiology. The result is that nature always builds new brain components and functions on top of (literally, on top of) whatever the processes of interactive evolution have already perfected across eons of time. As a result of this rather conservative approach to designing our hardware and inner software, all of us have a least four brains, and each of the four seems to have its own orientation, goals, and success indicators.

Courtesy of the neurophysiologists and their new and amazing brain investigation technologies (scanners of various kinds), we can observe our four different brains at work.

The First Brain

First and oldest is the brain with the most seniority—our Reptile Brain. It is not much changed in function from that of the average garden lizard. It is responsible for the basics of physical survival—heart beat, blood pressure, respiration, etc. (An old neuroscientist joke says that the Reptile Brain is responsible for the “4 F’s”—Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing…..and reproduction.)

The Second Brain

The Old Mammal Brain. A later development that is on top of around the Reptile, our Old Mammal Brain adds in a wonderful capacity to generate strong emotions, and to use these emotions to promote creature-level safety and well being. The additions of greater emotional range give the creature that has them even stronger drivers to move toward or away from conditions and experiences that will affect overall survival.

Note: At NLP Marin, we refer to the First and Second Brains, collectively, as our Critter Brain. It is not human, and it does not operate with truly human criteria. It has no attention to things like happiness, fulfillment, justice, truth or beauty. It works to fulfill the Four F’s, and that’s about it.

The Third Brain

Our third brain is our Primate neurology. It occupies a large part of the top and back of the inside of our heads. The Primate brain is very sophisticated, with a wonderful capacity to understand the realities and rules of community—the so-called primate dominance dynamics. Compared with us humans, however, the Primate brain lacks much inertest in or capacity to make meaning about abstractions, values, and long periods of time. It is the brain of a remarkable ape, but an ape that is not concerned with 20 year plans about anything.

The Fourth Brain—the Human Brain

This is the newest and most human part of us, neurologically speaking—our frontal and pre-frontal lobes. These are the reasons we have foreheads that are vertical instead of slanted. This Fourth Brain, especially their pre-frontal aspects (located immediately on the other side of our foreheads) are where the “I-ness” of us resides. If life damages part of our motor cortex or a speech center, farther back in our heads, then we may have impaired movement or speech, but we are still “us.” Damage to the pre-frontals, however, changes who we are and how we create meaning in the world. Moreover, there are some who say that our pre-frontal lobes are one of our main connections into whatever it is that we are part of in terms of non-physical reality.

All of four brains are operating constantly. They rely on each other and usually coordinate themselves magnificently. There are a few bugs in the interfaces, however, and these bits of bad programming can cause us huge difficulties as humans.

Some of the biggest bugs in our multiple brains

Bug #1

The main driver for the Critter Brain is fear, with the goal of survival, and with no attention to changing anything that has already become associated with this experience of survival. In complete contrast, the main driver for the Human Brain is love, with goals of learning and, basically, nothing but change. Consequence: our Human is always imagining things being different and better, while our Critter simultaneously values it all staying the same, especially if we are not dead yet (see Bug #3, below).

Bug #2

The Critter Brain does not deal in time, at least not in Human time. The Critter does a truly good job of being here now. For the Critter, there is meal time and nap time, but not a life-time. Consequence: the Critter will happily run hugely unproductive or damaging patterning forever. For the Critter, forever is just for-now.

Bug #3

The Critter has only one success indicator it uses to know if it is doing a good job for us. The Critter cannot actually speak, but this one success indicator comes down to a simple question, “Are we dead yet?” If the answer is no, then the Critter gives itself full marks, gold stars, and many thumbs up for doing a great job. The Human who is sort of riding along on top might be in life agony—doing their third failed business or fourth alcoholic marriage, for example, and the Critter will regard this as continuing a high-quality outcome. After all, these difficult or tragic experiences are no trouble for the Critter. It values a heart that beats; it has no attention to whether or not that heart is open or closed in more non-physical terms.

Whether our heart is open or closed, for example, is well above the Critter Brain’s pay grade. It does not know how to make meaning at this level. It can only create associations, and if a “broken heart” becomes associated with not-having-died, then the Critter will value “broken-heartedness” highly, and it will promote and foment the experience throughout the Human’s life. The more the Human tries to change things, the more the Critter operates to set them back to original conditions, to the ones with the most “survival value”—the experiences that we learned to survive and that, unfortunately for us humans, our Critter Brains then associated with continued survival. And because the Critter Brain is the one that generates most emotions, it knows how to create the feelings within us that will allow it get its way. Bug #3 is a serious bug indeed.

About thirty years ago, the founders of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) invented a description for their then newly synthesizing discipline, a new way of understanding and changing human experience. They described NLP as “the study of the structure of human experience and human excellence.” The important word here is “structure.” NLP is a terrifically good toolbox for helping us to understand how we create and maintain our experience as humans. The question that usually gets a session of NLP-based change work rolling is, “What would you like?” NLP change work is designed to locate and revise just exactly those kinds of Critter/Human communication problems that generate almost all of our unwanted experiences, the ones that go in the unwanted-yet-impossible-to-stop-or change category.

And working with the NLP toolbox promotes Critter/Human coordination and harmony. Our goal is to have what we want, based on our most truly human desires and standards, and to do so in actual present time. Neuro-Linguistic Programming can do this superbly well because it speaks English (or another language) to the Human Brain, but it speaks to the Critter Brain in the programming language of creature neurology, which is a language not of words, but of pictures, sounds, feelings, smells, and tastes. It’s like plugging a keyboard into the Critter wiring. When we reprogram or re-pattern the Critter in its own programming language, it accepts updates easily and, if desired, permanently.

In fact, at NLP Marin, we describe NLP as “a toolbox to help our creature neurology to better support our most human and spiritual goals.”

© 2006 Carl Buchheit and NLP Marin