Helping An Addict’s Broken Brain
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Helping An Addict’s Broken Brain


This post was originally published on August 13, 2014.

“The brain is built like an ice cream cone (and you are the top scoop): Through evolutionary time, as higher functions were added, a new scoop was placed on top, but the lower scoops were left largely unchanged…When new, higher functions were added, this did not result in redesign of the whole brain from the ground up; a new scoop was just added on top. Hence, in true kludge fashion, our brains contain regions, like the midbrain visual center, that are functional remains of our evolutionary past.” — David J. Linden, The Accidental Mind

Most people tend to think of the human brain as one entity. In reality though, your brain is more like a triple-decker ice cream cone. The scoop on top is part of what makes us human. But beneath that are second and third scoops—the more primitive parts of the brain that other animals share. It’s these parts of the brain that cause a lot of trouble for people—including addiction and a slew of other behavioral health issues.

Let me elaborate. That top scoop of ice cream is called the neocortex or rational part of the brain. This is where language, power of choice, imagination, intellect, executive function and reason come from. The wonderful thing about the neocortex is that it’s conscious, and therefore open to discussion. It can learn. This is what is addressed in meditation, education, talk therapy, 12-step programs and religion.

When you’re tired, have had a couple of drinks, you can’t stop eating, or feel compelled to cuddle without regard to consequences, that’s your second scoop—or midbrain—acting. The midbrain, otherwise known as the limbic system or mammalian brain, is where warm fuzzy bonding feelings, the instincts around food and reproduction, come from. It records and reproduces human emotions. Many people are compulsively stuck in midbrain instincts. Much of the midbrain is subconscious or unconscious and not open to acting unless a therapeutic method brings it to consciousness.

Finally, we have that bottom scoop: the reptilian brain. This is the part that performs the “fight or flight” response. When a person goes through trauma or is under stress, it sends signals to the rest of the brain that there’s trouble—even after the trouble is over, or when they’re trying to sleep, or years later. Where it really shines is when there actually is trouble, in which case it’s awesome and can make you strong in a way that you never knew you had in you, so you can survive if you are being, say, hunted. It also controls vital functions—heart rate, breathing, balance and body temperature. Otherwise it is often an irrational, inappropriate nut job that causes a lot of problems for people. It’s way down in the base of the brain and you have no idea consciously what it’s up to. I like to call it my unconscious lizard brain that does whatever it wants while I am walking around pretending to be a person.

Where I work in the world of craniosacral therapy, we say a person’s neocortex is not available to them when they are out of it, made a bad choice, had a meltdown or were under the influence. This is because once a person’s neocortex shuts down, the underlying animal brains take over, with instincts that register as needs. The necortex knows what’s good for you, but your animal brains have other ideas of a good time. The mammalian brain likes to eat, sleep and have indiscriminate sex. The reptilian brain likes to fight or flee and tornado about. Addiction happens here, where the habit latches to the instincts. We all have a human brain atop animal stuff at the core of our instincts running the show.

That’s all fine for a happy person who was raised well in a safe environment and has no unsavory genetics or physical or emotional trauma. But a brain stuck in fight-or-flight because it thinks it’s still at war even though the rest of the person came home, or a brain that’s been tackled too many times, or that grew up in an abusive home, or that comes from two long lines of alcoholics, or was sexually abused, or has neurons that don’t fire right, or needs to lash out because the environment registers as hostile, or is just a strung out type A personality—no matter how safe a brain like that gets, the lizard brain keeps punching that human in the face from behind and causing anxiety, depression, insecurity, or worse. Flashbacks, insomnia, headaches, emotional disturbance, outbursts, chronic pain, criminality, suicidality, violence—these are not rational decisions. They come from an irrational place.

And this is where High Performance Neurofeedback can really help. The whole brain puts out brainwaves constantly. What HPN does is help retrain the brainwaves of all three parts of the brain so that the reptilian brain, midbrain and neocortex can be organized and in tune. Over time, inappropriate instincts, needs and compulsions tend to become a matter of choice. The urge to fight or flee that may once have shown up as insecurity, rage, panic or benders tends to land instead in a place of choice and healthy expression. Ability to focus tends to improve because the brain is in tune with itself, and focus can be a matter of choice. Those pesky mammalian impulses can be chosen. For many, “choice” is a very foreign place for these urges. It can take some getting used to.

I have witnessed elegance. Once a brain is in tune with itself, people can make friends with their problems. It doesn’t matter if they are six years old, 60 years old, an executive, an actor, an addict, a parent, a divorcee, an athlete, or on the autism spectrum. I love people to come in freaking out. I let them freak all they want, they can talk about it or not, and I run the HPN on those freaking brainwaves. People often come up with a solution right there: they might be full-tilt drama one minute, and then suddenly their inner swami comes out. Or they laugh and say something wise that makes me want to steal their words, but I can’t, because it is so inherently “them” that I couldn’t get away with it. Suddenly I’ve met who they really are. Then they leave and forget what was bothering them. This is my idea of a good time.

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About Author

Rachel Smith is an HPN High Performance Neurofeedback Clinician and Craniosacral Therapist with more than 17 years experience as an alternative health practitioner. She specializes in relaxation and addressing symptoms of anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction, autism spectrum disorder, traumatic brain injury, headaches, ADD/ADHD, fibromyalgia and more.