©Arlene R. Taylor PhD    www.arlenetaylor.org

The concept of downshifting appears to fit with both what is now known about the triune nature of the human brainand what is observed in instructional settings and activities of daily living.
Leslie A. Hart
Human Brain and Human Learning

articles200408“My brain is like a what?” His handsome face was wreathed in puzzlement.

“Like an automatic transmission,” I replied. “Metaphorically, the human brain can be described in terms of three functional layers or gears, much like those of an automatic transmission.”

“And the purpose of these gears?” he asked.

“So you can drive smoothly on the highway of life, slowing down and speeding up, shifting down and shifting up as necessary—based on highway conditions—in order to arrive safely and timely at your destination. Generally, you want to drive in the third or top gear as much as possible, accessing second or first gear only when those gears are needed.”

“Just to be sure we’re on the same page,” I continued, “imagine you’re heading to Lake Tahoe for a weekend of skiing, driving a vehicle with an automatic transmission. (Everyone in California knows about Lake Tahoe!) You pass the 3,000 foot elevation marker, then the one for 5,000 feet. As you continue toward the 7,000 foot marker the highway narrows and becomes steeper. Snow begins to fall, and traffic backs up. What do you expect your vehicle to do automatically?”

“Shift down, of course,” the man answered. “My part is to stay off the horn. I think I’ve finally learned that snow is oblivious to the sound of honking. Pretty much so is traffic.” We laughed. How true.

“How far down will it shift?” I asked.

He stroked his carefully trimmed beard, thoughtfully. “Only as far as necessary to help me get through.”

“Great answer,” I said. “Sometimes when I ask that question I hear ‘to first gear, of course.’ Not necessarily. Your vehicle will go to first only if it cannot get through in second.”

He nodded in agreement.

I continued.  “What happens if it shifts down to first and is still unable to get through?”

“The engine will stall,” he replied, “and most likely I’ll have to stop and put on chains. Nothing I’m excited about experiencing on my way to Tahoe for a skiing weekend!”

“Now imagine the reverse. Not the gear, the situation,” I clarified. “The road flattens out, it stops snowing, and traffic disperses. Now what do you want your vehicle to do?”


“What are the consequences if it fails to upshift?”

He listed several possibilities in rapid-fire succession:

  • It will take more time to reach my destination
  • Because it takes longer, the vehicle uses more fuel
  • I may impede traffic
  • Eventually I could burn up the motor

To make it more real, I suggested that he imagine his left wrist as first gear, his left fist as second gear, and his right hand placed over the top of his left fist as third gear. “If you could move that into your skull, it would resemble the three brain layers,” I told him. (Refer to drawing of the three layers on the right.)

3 layers“Interesting,” he said. “What life-highway conditions would require use of second or first gear?”

“The brain tends to downshift in situations that involve trauma, crisis, fear, anxiety, negative experiences, or mindsets that promote a sense of helplessness,” I said. Then I gave him a list:

  • Serious physical injury
  • Death of family or close friend
  • Natural / catastrophic disasters
  • Being fired or unable to find a job
  • Going through a divorce
  • Thinking negative thoughts
  • Being shamed in front of others
  • Embroiled in dysfunctional patterns of living
  • Chronic or severe illness or hospitalization
  • Family member or close friend in a war zone
  • Experiencing abuse of any type

“Like being bullied,” he said. “I’m currently working with a teenager whose brain is likely downshifted from experiencing bullying behaviors. This helps explain a lot.”

Self-destructive behaviors, sometimes as a response to unmanaged stress or trauma, can kick the brain out of third gear, as well. These may include eating disorders, drug abuse, unbalanced living, addictive behaviors, compulsive sex or shopping or gambling, and the excessive use of electronics (including violent video games).

When confronted with these types of situations, the brain tends to downshift, searching for functions to enhance its sense of safety.

brain suspendersSome activities serve to highjack the third brain layer. They may or may not trigger downshifting, but they can interfere with high-level executive brain functions. I think of them as “brain suspenders” (e.g., specific types of music, flashing disco lights, extreme hunger, use of alcohol and various drugs), which temporarily suspend clear thinking, rational judgment, and effective decision-making.

“Do I take it to understand that any type of fear can trigger downshifting?” he asked

I responded to that good question.  “According to Joseph Chilton Pearce in The Biology of Transcendence, fear of any kind can throw the brain into a survival mode that when fully active, shuts down higher levels of awareness. This results in a shift of attention and energy away from the cerebrum and toward the brain stem. In such instances, humans tend to react on a more primitive level.”

The fear can be real (an actual danger) or imaginary (e.g., a fear of failure, of not being loved, of being unable to care for one’s self). The emotion of fear is essential to living safely, because it alerts you to situations that could pose a danger. Unfortunately, much of the fear people tend to harbor in their minds and bodies has nothing to do with actual danger. Rather it is imaginary fear that may have its basis in past experiences, self-esteem issues, learned patterns of negative thinking, unhealed wounds, lack of specific skills related to living successfully, and sometimes a failure to leave childhood defense mechanisms behind and grow up into a mature adulthood.

If you recognize fearful thoughts, ask yourself some questions and then pay attention to your thoughts:

  • What I am afraid of? Does the fear represent actual or potential danger to me? If there is actual danger, what is the worst thing that could happen? What is the probability that the worst thing will happen? Can I do anything about it?
  • If the answer is yes to that last question, initiate whatever appropriate action you can, related to the actual danger.
  • If the answer is no or if the fear is imaginary, change the way you think. Negative thinking is unlikely to improve the odds, and itself can contribute to downshifting and illness. Recall a happy memory. Identify something to appreciate or for which you are thankful. Studies have shown that it is physiologically impossible to be fearful and grateful at the same time. Live the Serenity Prayer.*

“Very helpful,” the man said, again stroking his carefully trimmed beard. It was a very classy beard. “I can use this information when I lead group therapy sessions. And it shines a new light on the Serenity Prayer. Thanks.”

He was more than welcome.

*Grant me the serenityto accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference
—Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)