The Clarity Brain


Your brain and curiosity

The brain has a brilliant mechanism to keep you safe and that in turn can prevent you from really listening to yourself and others. 

The Triune Brain is a simple model developed by Paul Maclean in the 1960’s. Whilst neuroscience has moved on a lot since then. This model still works well as a metaphor for how parts of the brain work.

It makes sense of why you might get distracted or feel unsettled and stop listening and therefore stop being curious.

At a very basic level, we are animals. We need to know we are safe. Do we fit in? And what are the rules?

We also need to be fed and well rested, to be able to think clearly and to learn.

The Triune Brain

In this model there are 3 parts of the brain referred to as:

1. Reptilian 

2. Mammalian

 3. Neocortex

I tend to refer to the reptilian and mammalian brain as survival brains and the neocortex as the clarity brain.


Reptilian brain – survival brain 1

The reptilian brain is located at the back of your head. It’s attached to the spinal cord and is about the size of your fist. This is the part of the brain that is all about our basic animal instincts to survive and keep us safe. It will respond automatically and you might see and hear behaviour of fight, flight or freeze when you feel threatened or unsafe. When this part of the brain first evolved we had to run from or fight predators, and whilst that can happen in our everyday life now the reality is that for the vast majority of us it is rarely life threatening; it just feels like it might be. It is important therefore to be mindful what we say and what we listen to that can trigger this brain to feel that you are not resourced and safe. 

When this part of the brain is triggered we can be reactive in our thinking and decision making. We can sometimes make decisions driven by old and out-of-date data. The response can be quick and automatic, pumping adrenaline from our clarity brain to our extremities such as hands and feet. Giving us the power to run or fight.  Have you ever been in a training session and not known when the break is and found yourself distracted because you are hungry or need the toilet. That is your reptillian brain wanting to make sure your basic needs are going to be met. This can also happen when you are not sure where your next client will come from as this might threaten the roof over your head. 

Can you think of a time when your reptilian might be driving your decision making recently? 

Mammalian brain – survival brain 2

The mammalian part of the brain is where the rules are stored and where we create an understanding of social norms and how we do things around here. In my lifetime so many rules have been challenged and changed and I am sure you are no different. This part of the brain, although focused on understanding the rules, is again very much based on protection and survival. What are the rules? How do I need to behave to fit in and survive?

You might have experienced this when you have a question and you start to wonder when is the right time to ask your questions? 

Do you worry about interrupting or talking too much or not enough?

Your brain tacks patterns to predict what might happen and the mammalian is keeping track of the rules to keep you safe. Only sometimes those rules were only needed for one hour when you were four years old with one particular incident and it can influence decisions even when you are much older and don’t require the same level of protection. 

Systemic Modelling trainer, Caitlin Walker talked about 3 kinds of rules.

Shared rules

These are the rules you share openly. Maybe you express them verbally or perhaps in a writing. You might set out what you want and what you expect from yourself and others. 

Unspoken or internal rules

These are the rules you say in your head and you don’t say out loud. You might find your
critic saying things like “That’s not fair” or  “That’s not right” but you don’t actually say anything.

Hidden Architecture

 These are the rules that even you don’t know you have until they are broken. Even when they are  broken you may not really know what the rule is – just that something has triggered an adverse  reaction and it doesn’t feel right to you. 

Notice when your mammalian brain is operating and challenging the rules or is worried it doesn’t know the rules. Perhaps you are someone that has worked hard to be different or maybe you have worked hard to be the same.

Notice where your attention is – what happens to listening and curiosity when you are distracted by the need to know the rules? Perhaps you worry about breaking the rules?

I know I did. I thought rules were like the law and you had to follow them. Perhaps you worry about speaking out and saying something that is different to what you have heard so far. That could be your mammalian brain trying to keep you safe.

Many entrepreneurs start their own business because they are sick of the limitations and rules of corporate life and then inadvertently they start playing by the same rules because they are running the old programming on autopilot without realising.

Take a moment now and think: What keeps you in your mammalian brain? What do you need to settle your mammalian brain? When you have awareness of when you are operating from mammalian or reptilian you can pay attention to patterns and triggers and then develop strategies to stay in your clarity brain more of the time.

I explain a bit more about the clarity brain below. Our hidden architecture is like the engine that drives our actions and our decisions and most of us are not consciously aware of the rules we are playing our life by. By changing the way you listen you are more likely to discover what triggers your reptilian and mammalian brain to kick in and practical ways to settle it.

Neocortex brain – clarity brain

All the time you are operating, thinking and therefore communicating from the reptilian and mammalian brain it is likely that you won’t have the words to articulate your thoughts as they are very instinctive and driven by your emotions.

I call this communicating from a place of survival. The challenge we have is that when we communicate from here, the brain takes blood from your clarity brain and it impacts your ability to think clearly.

If you are not listening to what you think and say you miss the opportunity to change the story and update the rules that govern your thinking and behavior. It is virtually impossible to manage ourselves and others through change when we are not operating from a place of clarity and confidence.  

The more I work with clients to explore their process, the more resourced they become to listen to and manage themselves.

Discover a better way of listening is our online community if you would like to find out more.


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Sheryl Andrews (aka The Listening Detective)

Founder of Step by Step Listening, Sheryl Andrews has always been keen to create space where other people felt safe to speak their truth no matter what that was. She is well known for her ability to motivate, manage and mentor others through change and loves nothing more than helping others feel heard and understood. She soon discovered there were 8 different kinds of listening and often people started talking without knowing which they needed. At Step by Step Listening they create space to explore what kind of listening works to ensure individuals are resourced to work, learn and live at their best with others and on their own. .

For regular updates and examples of how listening skills can resource you to manage yourself, time and others through change check out Free Success without stress newsletter


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Sheryl Andrews, Founder of Step by Step Listening is well known for her fast speaking and highly motivational passion. But what many of you may not know is that in private behind closed doors she was also no stranger to lapses in self belief and an overwhelming sense of not being good enough. Sheryl use to find it difficult when criticised even when she knew they meant well and found it difficult to respond rather than react. A series of 3 events in her personal life exaggerated her emotional overwhelm and forced her to address this problem and conquer her sensitivity to criticism. Today she shares every day stories of every day people and inspires you to discover ways to gain clarity and confidence to change the way feedback and criticism impacts your performance.

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