Upstairs Brain vs. Downstairs Brain

At a high level, meditation strengthens the part of your brain responsible for willpower, rational decision-making, focus, and emotional control. This region is called the neocortex, but you can think of it as the Upstairs Brain. Meditation allows you to gain conscious control over the more instinctual, primal parts of the brain, which may lead you astray. These regions are known as the reptilian brain and limbic system, and you can think of them as the Downstairs Brain.[1] The Downstairs Brain evolved to help your lizard ancestors find food and mates, while the Upstairs Brain developed more recently to help humans socialize and plan for the future. 


In an ideal world, the Upstairs Brain would serve as an authoritative master and we would make only rational decisions. In reality, the opposite is often true. The Upstairs Brain is in a constant tug-of-war with the Downstairs Brain. 


For example, you might have experienced this when seeing a candy bar at the checkout counter of a grocery store. Your Upstairs Brain knows it isn’t so good for your long-term health, but the Downstairs Brain reminds you of the sweet, chocolatey taste. Who wins out? Or how about that time you lost your cool with a loved one and said something you wish you hadn’t. 


Unfortunately, we’re often driven by our emotions and instincts, the Downstairs Brain. Remember the last time you made a big purchase? What series of facts led you to make that choice? Unfortunately, many buying decisions are driven by (often irrational) emotional impulses.[2] Many individuals are deciding with their Downstairs Brains and then retroactively justifying to themselves afterward why they made their decisions. Most of us go about making Downstairs Brain decisions regularly in a variety of areas of life. We are naturally built such that the neocortex is a slave to the limbic system and reptilian brain.


But with practice meditating, you’ll notice that the Upstairs Brain begins to gain the upper hand. Meditation helps some of the most successful people meditate to make more logical, Spock-like decisions when running the world’s largest hedge fund (Ray Dalio) or technology company (Steve Jobs). Long-term meditators exhibit enlarged prefrontal cortices and smaller amygdalae (emotional/fear center).[3] On a physiological level, meditation tips the scales in favor of the Upstairs Brain.

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[1]The Upstairs and Downstairs Brain model is over-simplified, of course, but I think it serves a good analogy. We’ll expand on this later using the Triune Brain model to understand how our brains evolved.

[2]Mahoney, Manda. “The Subconscious Mind of the Consumer (And How To Reach It).” Harvard Business School.Harvard College. 12 Jan. 2003. Web. 12 Nov 2018.

[3]Taren, Adrienne A., J. David Creswell, and Peter J. Gianaros. "Dispositional mindfulness co-varies with smaller amygdala and caudate volumes in community adults." PloS one 8.5 (2013): e64574.