Brain Rules & the Chariot

John Madina’s second rule in Brain Rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, is that we have three brains, not just one:

  • a lizard brain that keeps us breathing and our heart pumping;
  • a mammalian brain controls the “Four Fs”: fighting, feeding, fleeing and … reproductive behaviors.
    • The Amygdala, one of my favorite sections, is here — controlling rage, fear, pleasure, and memories thereof;
    • The Hippocampus, my other favorite, identifies where you are, and helps form long term memories thereby;
    • The thalamus, my potentially new favorite, is the traffic cop of the sensorium – routing sensory information from skin, ears, nose, tongue, eyes, and elsewhere to specific areas in the brain.
  • The cortex, the multi-folded, crazy structure with the consistency of Jell-0, occasionally as thick as corrugated cardboard, sometimes thinner than a sheet of paper, where speech, vision, memory, drawing, and all the other cultural apparatus of “being human” is stored.

Seems a lot like a Hermetic/magical model of the mind in that there’s a three-fold division between the lower functions rooted in matter, a middle mind that processes reality, and a higher mind connected to the realm of ideas. This is akin to the Tarot/Hermetic image of the Chariot, where a black beast and a white beast pull a chariot with a human charioteer. The image comes from Plato, who suggested that human beings have a three-part soul:

  1. the black beast, or physical appetites;
  2. the white beast, or social self
  3. the human being, or the rational self

Madina says that the human brain is highly adapted to deal with change. Growing up as a species on the African savanna, in an era of rapid environmental change, we developed a range of types of intelligences, and formed databases of information that could be rapidly redeployed. It made us relatively helpless as babies, but extremely competent adults.Advice to a young artist: The Chariot

So, we have a deep database of information (represented in the Tarot card by the wealth of symbolic information wreathing the charioteer’s head), but we also have an ability to riff off of that database by a combination of symbolic thinking and a sensory apparatus wired to a reasoning apparatus (thalamus?). Just as the charioteer feels the motion of the black and white beasts, so does the rational mind have the ability to steady and calm the two other parts of the soul. (But as the story of Phaethon would suggest, controlling a chariot is no easy task). Likewise, the black and white beasts transmit information back to the charioteer, which he ignores at his peril. There are thus feedback loops between the three participants in the chariot ride.

The charioteer is usually shown steering his chariot away from a city. He’s leaving the familiar realms of society behind. As the first Brain Rule, and the use of the mala to time walking meditation suggests, exercise, and movement through relatively unfamiliar environments, is critical to activating the database and its adaptivity. He has crossed the river — a possible reference to the last lines of the Buddhist “Heart Sutra“, loosely translated as:

gone, gone,
Real gone;
Beyond the river:
Enlightenment! Wow!

Thus, we can interpret the image of the Chariot to represent the importance of motion to improve brain function, the value of solitude as part of a regular practice, and the importance of regular adventure —

So. If we interpret this Brain Rule in a Hermetic framework, live like the charioteer: aware of the black and white beasts, but armored in the symbolic frames of human thought and language, and making regular voyages into unknown situations, beyond the river and outside the particular norms of familiar society. Accept change: both of landscapes and mindsets, and learn to be comfortable with the challenges of new situations. The Chariot tarot card may be used as a regular meditation to encourage the adoption of this mindset.

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  1. I don’t disagree with your distinction, Stephen. I’m just trying to (in my own mind, if in no one else’s) relate the image of the Tarot, and the underlying teaching of the image, to what I’m learning from this book Brain Rules, and seeing if there’s a way to internalize the lessons so that I don’t have to keep rereading the book, or forgetting the information.

    Recalling the image of the chariot helps bring to mind the reminder to get out in the world and see the landscape, and solve problems in a multi-faceted way, just as the mala exercise reminds me to get 20 minutes of exercise daily. It’s a way of internalizing practice, I think, and recalling key details quickly.

  2. A better tripart distinction than Plato’s would be:
    – a reactive, or instinctive, self
    – a sensing or perceiving self
    – a thinking or rational self

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