Top brain, bottom brain

In his latest book, Top Brain, Bottom Brain, celebrated psychologist and neuoroscientist Stephen M. Kosslyn, Ph.D, and co-author G. Wayne Miller offer a new way of thinking about our minds — and ourselves — based on a new way of looking at the brain.

Spoiler alert: The old left/right theory is debunked.

Kosslyn takes a new approach to understanding brain function, looking at the brain in terms of top-brain and bottom-brain systems. The top-brain system uses information about the environment and emotions to help formulate a plan. The bottom-brain system organizes signals from the senses and compares them to what’s been stored in the memory in order to think through the consequences.

The bottom brain classifies what’s going on and sends it to the top brain, which interprets it properly. It’s important for the two to work together, says Kosslyn. “If you’re just being driven by top-brain, you can be a bull in a china shop where you’re not paying attention to the consequences,” he says. “On other hand, if you’re driven by the bottom-brain, you can be lost in thought and be very passive.”

The Four cognitive modes

Kosslyn uses this top-brain/bottom-brain model to identify four cognitive modes, or default modes in thinking that we can find in people, depending on how active their top and bottom brain systems are. Those modes are:

  • Mover: is someone who uses both the top and bottom systems of the brain—enabling them to both plan and see the consequences of their actions.
  • Perceiver: tends to gravitate toward bottom-brain mode, tending to analyze and give context to a situation.
  • Stimulator: tends to make elaborate plans, but doesn’t always think through consequences of those plans
  • Adaptor: is someone who doesn’t overly gravitate toward either system and tends to go with the flow and let the environment or others dictate a situation.

You can be in different modes in different contexts, it turns out people have a default mode. All else being equal, people tend to be in one of those four modes.

– Kosslyn

How to fight impulsivity

Kosslyn uses these modes to unpack how we can better approach decision-making. Noticing which of these modes you fall into can help you take the right steps to balance out your own cognitive tendencies.

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