In this next section, let’s temporarily transport ourselves off the USS Enterprise/Battleship Brain, back over to the brain itself so that we can learn the main functions of the four parts of the brain that we’ve already discussed. Once again, we’re in no-frills country here, so we’re going for the big ideas. Even the big ideas, though, take some time to explain, so I will address each of the four parts separately.
First, I would have you consider that the brainstem has two major functions:
- Reflex Center: The brainstem truly is the brain’s engine room. When messages come up from the body such as “Oxygen is getting low down here,” the brainstem will initiate the “Breathe!” protocol. No thought, just reflex. Or when the message is “Getting too hot down here,” it will implement the “Sweat!” protocol. You can rest assured that both you and the gecko on the GEICO commercials have functioning engine rooms with similarly functioning equipment. (For if they are not functioning, in fact, neither you nor the gecko are going to have much need for auto insurance.)
- Data-Gathering Center: The brainstem is essentially the first stop for any sensory input from either the world inside the body or the world outside it. What you see, hear, smell, taste, feel: all of it is in some way first “detected” and “gathered” within the brainstem. Understand: this is just raw data, like 0’s and 1’s within a computer. Other parts of the brain determine whether this information is good news or not-so-good news (the limbic system) and then what this information is (the cortex) and what to do about it (the prefrontal cortex). But if you don’t know it’s coming, you won’t know what to do about it!
Think of it this way, in a brief preview of the USS Enterprise/Battleship Brain equivalent for the brainstem: The brainstem detects the incoming “atoms” of the new crew members/experiences as they are heading toward the transporter room. This is a capacity that the “real” USS Enterprise didn’t have—and, as we shall see, it’s an extremely important capacity for understanding what happens to the brain during any trauma, and especially combat trauma.
Now that the ship is running and keeping an eye on the world, both inner and outer, let’s go on to the limbic system. On our way there, though, keep remembering our ultimate goal for all this: Decontaminating the Radioactive Emotions of War to Create a Radiating, Emotion-Filled Deployment Back into Life.
See you then!