The Limbic System of the Brain & Navigating Trauma

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Body Keeps The Score" by Bessel van der Kolk. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the function of the limbic system of the brain? How does it work and what does it have to do with trauma?

The limbic system of the brain is the part of the brain that houses and detects emotions and helps keep you safe. This part of the brain helps you survive by allowing you to navigate complex situations.

Keep reading to find out how to limbic system of the brain works and how it relates to trauma.

The Limbic System of the Brain and Trauma

What is the function of the limbic system of the brain? The next part of the brain that develops — largely in the first six years of life — is the limbic system, also called the mammalian brain. This is the part of the brain that houses emotions, watches for danger, detects joy or fear, decides what’s important for survival, and manages how you navigate complex social networks. 

This area of the brain is largely shaped by your experiences; the more you have a certain type experience, the more it becomes ingrained in your brain and your response becomes the default. For example, if most of your childhood experiences make you feel safe and loved, your brain will be conditioned to play, explore, and cooperate. However, if you are often scared and feel unwanted, your brain will operate in fear and feelings of abandonment.

The Emotional Brain 

The reptilian brain and the limbic system together comprise the so-called emotional brain, which is responsible for your well-being. The function of the limbic system of the brain has an important role to play.

Your emotional brain looks out for danger and opportunity, and alerts you with hormones that fire off physical sensations (e.g. when you feel your chest tighten in response to panic). This averts your mind from whatever you’re doing to react immediately to the danger or opportunity. 

In the interest of reacting in the face of immediate threats, the emotional brain works quickly and fairly simply; it interprets information in a general way, and may jump to conclusions based on the rough perception of threat. For instance, it’s your emotional brain that makes you jump back at the sight of a snake … before your rational brain realizes that it’s actually just a rope. 

The emotional brain jump-starts your preprogrammed reactions, like the fight-or-flight response, which get your body in motion before you have time to think or plan. This can be a life-saving reflex when you need a quick reaction, but it can also cause issues when your emotional brain misjudges a threat — and trauma can alter the emotional brain’s ability to accurately and effectively perceive threats. 

The Neocortex

In addition to the limbic system of the brain, your neocortex also helps you navigate trauma. The neocortex is the top layer of the brain, largely made up of the frontal lobes. This is also the last area of the brain to develop, when you are between the ages of 2 and 7. 

The frontal lobes manage language, abstract thought, imagination, creativity, empathy, and the ability to plan the future and reflect on the past. The functions of the frontal lobes are vital for healthy interpersonal relationships. 

The frontal lobes house so-called mirror neurons, which allow you to pick up on other people’s actions, emotions, and intentions. On the plus side, mirror neurons give you the tools necessary for empathy; on the down side, they also make us sensitive to other people’s negativity and make it possible to get dragged down by another person’s anger or depression. 
Trauma survivors almost always have issues with not feeling seen or considered by others — not receiving empathy — so effective treatment must teach trauma sufferers to feel safe mirroring and being mirrored by others, while also resisting being overly vulnerable to other people’s negativities.

Clearly, the limbic system of the brain is important to how you deal with trauma and emotion.

The Limbic System of the Brain & Navigating Trauma

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  • How your past trauma might change your brain and body
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  • Why some trauma survivors can't recognize themselves in the mirror

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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