A useful way to help children visualize how their brain works is to describe the brain’s layers as upstairs and downstairs neighbors. Calm Carl, Happy Hilda, and Creative Catie all live upstairs while Bossy Billy, Alerting Allison, and Scared Susan live downstairs. In this model, the upstairs neighbors live in your neocortex, the part of the brain responsible for language, abstract thought, imagination, consciousness, and rational decisions. The upstairs neighbors understand concepts like time, morality, decision-making and sense of self. The downstairs neighbors live in the spinal cord, brain stem, cerebellum, and limbic system and thrive on pure instinct and impulsivity, always poised to act to keep you alive. Your memories also live with the downstairs neighbors.
If the upstairs neighbors are in charge, you make good decisions and do the right thing. Upstairs neighbors are problem solvers, planners, creatives, and flexible. Your upstairs neighbors encourage you to:
- Think before you act or speak
- Be in control of your body, words and actions
- Focus and pay attention
- See other people’s points of view
- Be confident
- Make good choices
Your downstairs neighbors are in charge of your really big feelings. Downstairs is where feelings of love and caring come from, and it is also where anger, frustration, and fear come from. There’s nothing wrong with being downstairs and having big feelings. That’s normal. But if those neighbors get too loud, or never talk to the upstairs neighbors, you:
- Act before you think
- Feel out of control
- Are too upset to pay attention or learn
- Might yell, argue or run away and hide
- Only see your point of view
- Can’t complete your work
Sometimes it might be really important to let our downstairs neighbors be in charge. What if you met a dinosaur in the library? Wouldn’t it be important for your downstairs brain to keep you safe? And everyone lets their downstairs brain neighbors takeover sometimes, even adults. Have you ever seen your mom or teacher get frustrated when they can’t find their keys? Or are running late? Their downstairs brain neighbors make them get more and more frantic.
When the downstairs neighbors are in charge, they may need help calming down so the upstairs neighbors can give them a “hug”. This can be any activity that makes the downstairs neighbors begin to feel safe and happy again, like doing yoga poses, taking big breaths, dancing or singing, coloring, listening to music, reading, giggling, meditating, exercising, or asking for a real hug! Our brains actually work best when our upstairs and downstairs neighbors work together, sending messages to each other.
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