Old Brain New Brain Model

In Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), a powerful way of learning about yourself is through the idea of the ‘tricky brain’. Here, we discuss with people about how although our minds are amazing and have evolved fantastic abilities that have helped us thrive and survive as a species (for example, creativity, planning, imagination), these same abilities can also drive a lot of our suffering. 

Old Brain New Brain Model

Here’s a brief outline about our old brain and new brain (always remembering that of course, this is a simplification of complex processes…): 

Our old brain is really old (over 200 million years) and contains structures that are shared with other animals and which are important for survival. For example, basic motives (to avoid harm, to make us interested in food, sex and competition for things), emotions (like anger, anxiety, disgust) and behaviours (like fight and flight). 

But about a million years ago our ancestors started to develop new abilities, which we call the ‘new brain’ and are particularly linked to the pre-frontal cortex. These new abilities include being about to imagine, plan, mentalize, reflect and self-monitor. 

Whilst they can get on pretty well, unfortunately, old and new sometimes get in a tussle. This is in part because their are bundles of neurons that carry information throughout the body that flow up from old to new, and also down from new to old.

So, although it’s great that we can think back in time and also imagine the future, but sometimes, particularly when guided by old brain emotions like anxiety, this can drive us in to rumination or worry.  Here, thinking-feeling loops start to emerge, and for some of us, we can get stuck with these in a painful way. It’s not our fault, as we didn’t choose to have these abilities, but it can be helpful to become aware of these loops and find wise ways of working with them

You can also access this as a PDF download old brain new brain

If you’re like to learn how to work with your tricky brain, and whatever loops in the mind you experience, check out our CFT self-help here

Old Brain New Brain Model

These handouts have all been adapted from the wonderful work of Paul Gilbert