Working with Our Primitive Brains — A Lighter Story than Yesterday’s

John Matterson
4 min readJan 22, 2021


As I mentioned in my blog yesterday, our primitive brain isn’t there to make us happy, it is there to keep us safe.

Here is a not too scientific explanation of how it works. We use our brains for thinking and intelligence. If we don’t know about something (we lack intelligence) then we have to think things through. This would explain why as a curious young boy I decided to play with my Dad’s razor. I didn’t have any experience with razors, but I had seen my dad use it and it looked pretty cool. I spun the handle and grabbed the razor blade by pinching it between my thumb and forefinger. I gained painful intelligence along with blood and embarrassment. Razors hurt. Based on the intelligence I gained, I haven’t attempted that since.

This is one of the easier examples of learning. It is like a child touching a hot stove. They generally don’t do it twice.

Developing most intelligence takes more time (experience). Consider a situation where you are waiting to cross a busy road with a child. You hold their hand, because you aren’t confident that they have developed the intelligence to get across the street safely. You though, can predict accurately when a car will arrive and whether you can cross before it or if you need to wait. You aren’t thinking through the problem by estimating the speed of the car and distance. You just know. We have done our thinking during our past experiences, and now have the intelligence required. We can visualize what will happen.

Of course there are far more complex levels of intelligence like learning to play the piano or read, but those too start with thinking and then improve with intelligence.

From the primitive brains point of view, the primary purpose of thinking is to avoid thinking in the future. Once we have done our thinking, our primitive brain stores that information so the next time you run into the same issue, you won’t have to think through it again.

Edward de Bono described the brain being like a pile of sand with the information we receive falling like drops of water that slowly land on the top of the pile. At first, in an infant’s brain, the water goes everywhere, but over time troughs start to develop as we gain more intelligence. Eventually you end up with one stream. A single stream of your version of intelligence.

We all risk getting stuck in those ruts we create. We will be left behind if we are not open to new thinking and questioning of our ways to keep up with a changing world. The thinking that got us to where we are isn’t going to get us out of it. Great is only going to happen if we move forward. We can’t stay safely in our ruts.

One major positive example of where this has worked is that many of us have changed our views, and had our views changed, in regard to the LGBTQ community over the past few decades. I know not everyone is there yet, but the majority of us have rethought our views and have created a new intelligence path. This process of rethinking can be so strong that many people that were opposed in the past, don’t seem to even remember their opposition.

Now, we need to do the same as it relates to systemic racism and white power. We need to remove the burden of explaining racism from our First Nations communities and carry some of the weight for them. [I will be starting a separate blog site on this topic — stay tuned for more.]

On a less important topic, the thinking versus intelligence concept works in golf too. (Its a beautiful sunny January day today and I am teeing off in a couple of hours.)

Your brain reacts to what you are thinking about and you don’t want to be thinking about too many things during your golf swing. You certainly don’t want to think of all the things that can go wrong, because that is what your brain will pick up on. It’s harder than it sounds as golf experience provides a really long list of things you don’t want to do again. The key point is if you think you are going to fail, your brain will help you do it.

What you need to do is visualize the shot you want. Limit your thinking to where you want the shot to go and trust yourself to get it there. Either way, you are trusting your brain with the shot, so you might as well make sure it knows what you want.

I hope it finally works today.

Keep on challenging your own beliefs and avoid ruts. Take the time to really hear another’s point of view. Lift people up. That’s the road to a better world.

PS: In my article yesterday I may have given some of you the impression I have violent dreams every night. They happen more often than I am comfortable with, but more like once and occasionally twice in a week. Last night I dreamt of being in Mexico City Airport in a flight delay. The flight was scheduled for 2pm, but was now delayed to 3am and I didn’t know where my carry on bag with my passport, wallet and boarding pass were. I wanted to find a hotel to lay down in, but I couldn’t make anything work. Many of you that read this were there. The airport waiting area looked a lot like the basement of the Royal Centre building on Georgia Street. All very vivid. I don’t remember how I woke up. No memory of anything really violent, but I did wake up in the middle still flustered.

Originally published at on January 22, 2021.



John Matterson

I am a writer that happens to have Parkinson’s. I write about my experiences with a balance of humour, optimism and honesty.