How the Primal Brain Affects Behavior

January 16, 2017
Text books and pencils in a pencil holder on a desk

What is your first reaction when a student screams at you and calls you a name?

Are you shocked? Angry? Afraid?

Perhaps you’re discouraged because you feel that this behavior is disrespectful or inappropriate.

These are common human responses.

This kind of experience can be difficult, but your reactions are understandable, and you can definitely do something to help.

When a student is screaming out of anger or frustration, there is something physiological going on in their brain.

The CPI Verbal Escalation ContinuumSM addresses this Defensive stage, and CPI recommends that staff let students vent when they are in the screaming stage.

This is suggested with good reason.

As students move up the Defensive stage, there is a loss of rationality.

Think of it this way:

Humans have one brain, but it has really developed over time and become more complex, leaving us with essentially two brains.

A modern brain and a primal brain.

Your modern brain (frontal cortex) is responsible for problem solving, memory, language, judgment, impulse control, and reasoning.

Your primal brain (hindbrain and medulla) is responsible for survival, drive, and instinct.

When your primal brain is engaged (sympathetic response), your modern brain is not working much. When the primal brain turns off and the modern brain kicks into gear (parasympathetic response), rationality returns, bringing back clearer thinking.

The student who is screaming and venting is operating from their primal brain.

Any kind of reasoning or talking during this primal brain operation is most likely to escalate rather than de-escalate. At this point, you are not engaging with a thinking, rational, reasoning brain. You are faced with a primal brain that does not comprehend language effectively.

Think about the last time you were angry and someone told you to calm down.

Did it work? Did you miraculously go from anger to complete calmness?

Of course you didn’t.

In fact, being told to calm down may even have made you angrier.

Later, when you did calm down, you may have felt sorry for your behavior. This is because you were now thinking with your modern rationalizing brain, which allows you to process more clearly.

On many occasions I have found support staff trying to teach students anger control techniques during an anger episode. As you may already know, this is the worst time to teach a technique because the primal brain is not fond of learning. It operates on instinct.

The trick is to teach anger control techniques to students when they are calm, and most importantly to get them to engage in those techniques when they still have their modern brain engaged. This will effectively prevent the primal brain from showing up in full force. This is why mindfulness training is so important when you’re teaching anger control.

Mindfulness is the first step in recognizing what brings on the primal brain.

Here’s some good news.

CPI offers a host of solutions with nonverbal communication. This is what the primal brain responds to best. That primal brain is looking out for proxemics (body posture) and kinesics (body space). This means that what you’re doing with your body is much more important than the words you’re saying.

Here are some thoughts to consider when facing the primal brain:

  • Am I in a threatening posture, or am I using my Supportive StanceSM?
  • Am I too close, providing a feeling of entrapment or the need to escape?
  • What am I communicating with my body, my hands, my facial expressions?
  • What message am I sending nonverbally to the primal brain?

Consider what CPI teaches: Position, Posture, and Proximity.

Now let’s reconsider that screaming student.

Reframe the situation knowing that the primal brain is doing the screaming.

Your goal is to send that primal brain the nonverbal message that you are not a threat. Your goal is to try to be supportive.

As the primal brain receives these messages, there’s a good chance physiologically that rationality will begin to return. At this point, you use your verbal communication skills to engage that modern brain.

Approaching in this way can really help you effectively deliver the most efficient intervention to an escalating student. Reframing an escalating event as modern brain switching to primal brain should give you a better understanding of why a student may act in this way, and hopefully give you the confidence to help someone in need.


In addition to being a CPI Certified Instructor, Christopher Fernandes, MA, LMHC, CSAC, is a licensed clinician and school adjustment counselor in Massachusetts, practicing and teaching evidence-based therapies and interventions to staff and students. He currently works with inner-city students, where his focus is on behavior change, motivation, academic success, and school improvement.

Chris has significant experience in direct care and treatment of children with emotional and behavioral difficulties as well as teaching others how to work with a behavioral population. He has a strong background in Behaviorism, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Collaborative Problem Solving, Family Systems Therapy, and Motivational Interviewing.

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