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  • Writer's pictureMcKinley

Unlearning the Triune (3-part) Model of the Brain - It's a Myth?!

"Change is the end result of all true learning." - Leo Buscaglia

I first learned of the triune, or three-part, model of the brain when researching Adverse Childhood Experiences and Resilience which became the original Rise to Resilience presentation.

Since then, I encountered the triune brain model regularly: Conscious Discipline uses it as a foundational concept. Dr. Dan Siegel's Hand Model of the Brain and the "flipping your lid" analogy. And in Community Resilience Initiative's training series, it was also a core component.

About two years ago, someone on a Facebook post attempted to correct my misbelief in the triune model. I dismissed it. Twice in the last year, a close friend shared with me evidence of the model being debunked, and I dismissed that too. It was when I received an email from Community Resilience Initiative (CRI) explaining their shift away from the triune brain model and towards the work of Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett that I met my cognitive dissonance with curiosity. Dr. Feldman Barrett's work was that which my friend had tried to introduce me in recent months.

When I read CRI's email, I was ready to integrate this new (un)learning. Or at least start exploring more, anyway. Rather than allowing my confirmation bias to direct my exploration of the triune model being a myth, I led with my desire to learn. I am not writing this post to detail what several articles in the next paragraph do, but rather to model the learning process I have had over the last two months. I invite you to explore the coming links to inform your own learning, too.

I dove into Dr. Feldman Barrett's 7 and 1/2 Lessons About the Brain and really needed no more convincing. I didn't want to take "one" neuroscientist's word for it though, since I felt like that was what got me so attached to the triune brain model (it was initiated by just one person's theory, after all). So I looked some more and found reinforcement from sources such Your Brain is Not An Onion with a Tiny Lizard Inside and Rethinking the Reptilian Brain. As I reopened tabs and revisited search history to write this post, I also discovered an article from earlier this month by Dr. Feldman Barrett on Nautilus, unpacking three myths about the brain.

I had integrated the triune brain model into much of the work with caregivers and educators. It felt irresponsible to continue to perpetuate this myth once I learned that it had been long-debunked. So what to do instead? First, I sought advice on PACEs Connection. I considered what other aspects of neuroscience I could incorporate: NICABM's Window of Tolerance, infographics and media from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, a variety of content from Trauma Geek and the Therapist Neurodiversity Collective, and finally a 3D Model of the Brain to support focusing on the functions of different parts of the brain.

While it's been uncomfortable to navigate the cognitive dissonance that (un)learning initiated, I am excited to be better informed than I was before and more prepared to navigate supporting children, their families, and educators.

Have you (un)learned something recently that challenged you?

A black background with a painted rock. The background of the rock is painted a light blue and has a tree facing horizontally behind the word Learning in black paint.

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Adriana Van Altvorst
Adriana Van Altvorst

Thank you Melissa...a very interesting and informative post. I am now reexamining my thinking.

When we simplify the science to "catchy" images

We often set in place prior-knowledge that goes on to become problematic

As it sets us on the path of confirmation bias

This is a problem that we have faced in the past and will do so into the future

Thank goodness some of our great scientists forging into the unknown are not held back by confirmation bias

We can all learn from this

Adriana van Altvorst

Child Advocacy NZ

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