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Your Child has Three Brains

Your Child has Three Brains

Posted on Thursday, 02 June 2016, in Parenting & Families

Did you know your child has three brains?

It’s a common misbelief that humans only have one brain, but in fact, the brain is made up of three distinct regions – the rational, mammalian and reptilian 1. These three areas chart the evolution of the brain and show how humans have come to develop in terms of intellectual and emotional capacity.

three brains diagram


Reptilian Brain

Reptilian brain – this is the most ‘ancient’ part of the brain and is largely unchanged by evolution. All vertebrates share this part of the brain and is hence sometimes referred to as the ‘dinosaur’ brain! It is located right at the base of the main brain mass. The reptilian part of the brain is used for instinctive behaviours needed for survival, such as:

Behaviours of the Reptilian Brain


Mammalian Brain

Mammalian brain – this is an area of the brain that is similar in structure and chemical make up to other mammals such as apes. It is also known as the limbic system or the emotional brain. This part of the brain is responsible for strong emotions and needs to be kept well in check by the rational brain in order for the individual to operate successfully in the modern world. The mammalian brain is responsible for strong emotions such as:

Behaviours of the Mammalian Brain

Whilst the behaviours and basic emotions of the reptilian and mammalian brains are necessary for survival, as humans developed into social beings they needed to adapt their behaviours to allow them to live cohesively in communities.

Some theorists 2 believe that the basic instincts and emotions developed into a more complex set of feelings, which allowed us to self regulate our behaviours and thus live more harmoniously. So anger and fear became more subtle and were displayed as shame, guilt and sadness. It is at this point that a more complicated and uniquely ‘human’ brain emerges – the rational brain.


Rational Brain

Rational brain – this is also known as the higher brain or the frontal lobes and takes up 85% of the total brain mass. It is, evolutionally speaking, the newest part of the brain and is thought to have developed to handle more complex emotions needed for our communal living arrangements as well as to form relationships which would help us survive. The rational brain is responsible for higher level capabilities such as:

Behaviours of the Rational Brain


What does this mean for parents?

Whilst all humans have these three parts of their brain present at birth, they don’t develop for several years. One very important part of the brain – the orbitofrontal cortex does not develop until the child is three. This part of the brain is responsible for emotional intelligence, our ability to see the world from another’s point of view and manage strong emotions such as rage or fear.

The development of this part of the brain and many others is not something that just happens naturally. It relies heavily on the interactions of others, namely the main caregivers of the child. Much of a baby’s brain is ‘plastic’ so early experiences have a formative effect on how they will go on to interpret the world and form relationships later on in life. Parental interactions help form the synapses and bridges that give the child healthy solutions to difficult situations.

Luckily, there isn’t a complicated set of tasks or exercises that parents should complete to aid the development of their child’s brains. Nurturing and interacting is the key, teaching a child that their needs will get responded to in a caring, affectionate way, talking to them, showing them patience and even just eye contact are all important in helping your child’s brain develop.

As parents, we won’t always get it right, we all get frustrated and snap at our children at times, but even the process of apologising and things becoming OK again is very useful for our children’s developing brains.

Two girls holding hands with balloons


What if it goes wrong?

Of course, not all children will have positive experiences in the first few years of life. For instance, children who have a depressed or anxious main care giver may experience less positive interactions than other children.

We often hear from parents who are wracked with guilt that their post-natal depression has prevented them from bonding with their child. We have worked with children whose adopted parents are struggling with some of the issues that have arisen due to the child’s early neglect. Many parents are anxious that it might be too late for things to change, but we know that things can and do get better, if the right help is sought.

Seeking help from an expert, experienced in this field, can make a huge difference to your child’s future. For instance, parenting support can help readdress some of the issues by teaching coping mechanisms and new, healthier ways of responding. Many children will benefit enormously from a talking therapy to work through difficult emotions and to help learn new ways of dealing with them.

Call our child and adolescent team

Clinical Partners have a nationwide team of private psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists who work with adults, children and families.

If you think your child and family might benefit from some support, please call 0203 326 9160 to speak to one of our child and adolescent team today. Appointments are available within days and you don’t need a GP referral.

CAMHS | Three brains 



1 Sunderland, M. (2007) What every parent needs to know, Dorling Kindersley 2007

2 Turner, J. (2000) On the Origin of Human Emotions, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press

Emilie Head

Emilie Head Business Development and Content Editor BA(Hons), ACMA, MBACP

Emilie has three main roles at Clinical Partners – managing our NHS Partnerships, developing the services our Clinicians offer and writing and editing web content.

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