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The Table Video

Curt Thompson

A Tour of Your Brain

Psychiatrist / Author / Founder of Being Known
March 7, 2013

Curt Thompson M.D., author of Anatomy of the Soul, explains how our brains develop, commenting on the various features and functions of the brain.


The brain tends to develop from bottom to top, and right to left. And I say tends, because this is no hard and fast rule but what we are referring to is that as a developing fetus grows, especially its neurological system. First, comes what we call the neural tube, which becomes later our spinal cord. And at the top of the spinal cord, we see emerging, what eventually becomes the brain stem.

The brain stem, is the part of the brain is responsible for most of our very basic life functions. So, breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, temperature appetite regulation. Those kinds of things that we need for basic survival. We have this in common with reptiles. In addition, the brain stem also houses what we call fight-or-flight procedures.

So, those things that become imminently dangerous to us, activate networks in the brain stem that then lead to us behaving quite automatically, without having any thought whatsoever. So, if I’m walking across the street and a car blows on the horn, because I’m not watching. I don’t think about whether or not to get out of the way. I simply do.

From the brain stem, then heading north, again, bottom to top. We think about what we call the limbic circuitry. Or circuitry out of which much of what we feel emotionally emerges. We also like to say that emotion is important because as the word implies, e-motion, that which proceeds movement.

That if we were to take emotion out of the human being, human beings would stop moving. We wouldn’t do anything. Emotion then becomes, as we say, the energy around which the brain organizes itself. It then, tends to, energize other things that are taking place in the cortex, which is then, the top part of the brain. So, we’ve moved from the brain stem, to the limbic circuitry, to cortex. Bottom to top.

The cortex is what most people might think of or recognize when they think about a model of the brain, of an anatomical model that they’ve seen. And, the cortex among other things, is eventually the place out of which emerges our critical thinking, our reflective thinking, our logical and linear thinking.

But, before it ever gets there, it also is the place of which emerges things like our creative self. My sense of space and mobility. My sense of what I like artistically. If I walk into a room and just see that it feels good, or that it feels cluttered. My right hemisphere is gonna have a lot to do with that. So, we see now that even, though we are also, that we are moving from bottom to top, we are also moving from right to left. By that, we mean, that the right hemisphere, tends to develop, in developing fetuses and even in children, up to the age of five or six years, the right hemisphere tends to mature more quickly than the left does.

And so, the things that the right hemisphere is responsible for, in most people, things like creativity, visual spatial orientation, non-verbal cues. 60% to 90% of all human communication is non-verbal in nature. So, most of that communication is taking place in the right hemisphere that has already begun to develop very, very, quickly, before the baby is even born. It’s only later, around 18 to 24 months of age, that my left hemisphere now starts to mature. So, my logical thinking, my linear thinking, that one thing follows another, my mathematical thinking. My need for things to be in order. All of that, begins to develop later, in time.