These are some basic mechanisms that the brain works on: Approach or avoid, and inhibit or excite. And it is more complex than what it may seem. Activating something can slow things down, and inhibiting something can speed things up. We also have excitatory & inhibitory neurotransmitters that bind with excitatory & inhibitory neurons, which in turn make the post-synaptic neurons more or less likely to fire, thus creating some of the aforementioned approach/avoid dynamics of human behavior; it’s all rather convoluted and this article will NOT go into that level of detail. The human brain is a truly remarkable part of our total self.
Approach and avoid
Approach and avoid tend to be psychological dynamics that can be seen as functions of the activation or inhibition of certain brain structures and chemicals. We tend to be wired to avoid pain and to approach comfort. This may seem obvious, but when we get into the details of how the mind works, we begin to see how wires can easily get crossed (addiction and bad habits being excellent examples). The mind is a wonderfully complex computer that gives us our experience of life, and our sense of self, so understanding it can help us maximize its potential to give us an amazing experience! When those wires do get crossed, mindfulness-based counseling can help you get them untangled.
Approaching pleasure and comfort seems to be a primary motivator in life. The approach mechanisms in the mind work from a reward system where certain chemicals are released into the pleasure center of the brain that gives us a sensation that we naturally want to repeat. While it is a psychological experience, the experience itself is a function of the chemicals and structures in the brain that is responsible for that experience. This is why the mind IS the body, and vice versa–each is a function of the other.
Avoidance of pain is a way to approach comfort/balance. When we experience something that is not conducive to our survival or comfort, our brain gives us an experience that we can call discomfort. This discomfort simply motivates us to do something to relieve it. This is why the whole avoidance principle is about returning to approaching comfort and balance. Just like there are chemicals and structures in the brain that give pleasure, there are also related structures and chemicals that give us pain (Substance P and the parietal lobe of the brain, for example). Pain and discomfort help us know that we need to change.
Excitation and inhibition
There are other brain structures that interact with the approach/avoid mechanisms. These mechanisms either inhibit certain urges/behaviors or activate them (sometimes you’ll see activation described in terms of ‘exciting’ or ‘stimulating’ neural structures).
Ever wonder why stimulant medications can calm hyperactivity? It’s a common question with a simple answer. The part of the brain being stimulated is the frontal lobe. And guess what the frontal lobe helps control. . . impulses. Exciting (stimulating) the frontal lobe turns on calmness and focus, and therefore calms the hyper kiddo down, and helps the distracted kiddo focus.
There are many parts of the brain that have this paradoxical effect; where activating it causes something to slow down. It’s like you “activate/stimulate” the brake pedal to slow your car down. But, of course, there are other parts of the brain that when stimulated, create a more excited response. Activating the pleasure center in the parietal lobe (top of the brain) fires up pleasure. Firing up parts of the amygdala (along with some other structures like the adrenal glands) causes you to move much faster. An example of this is the classic “flinch response.”
Watch this video before reading:
On the other end of the spectrum are neurons and brain structures that when fired up cause certain traits to be suppressed. For example, when we inhibit parts of the frontal lobe and the thalamus, there is a firing up of attention to detail. The thalamus suppresses recall of certain details. There is a great video online (Daniel Simons, 1999) where people are instructed to watch a few people pass basketballs back and forth quickly. The viewer is asked to pay attention to how many times those wearing white pass the ball. When they finish the video, they are again asked to watch the same video without focusing on counting. Viewers are astonished to see a man dressed in a gorilla suit walk up in the center of the screen, beat his chest and walk off (this won’t work if you are reading this before the video, or if you’ve seen it before). They had not noticed it before. The thalamus inhibited neural signals from being transmitted to memory recall because the focus was instead on counting the white ball bounces. In a nutshell, the thalamus inhibited postsynaptic neurons leading to memory recall, thus suppressing it.
Read more about the brain chemistry, structures and function.
There are more than just the above structures/mechanisms . . . and as you can probably imagine, the vast number of combinations and permutations of these structures and mechanisms interacting is endless . . . for those familiar with statistics, it’s almost an absurd #-way ANOVA.