Feb 252015


I was struggling in my neurobiology mini-course.  (Huh??? Yeah.)  I couldn’t “get” one of the key concepts about the structure of the human brain  — until the instructor threw me a game-changing lifeline.  She told me to picture an orange.

What do oranges have to do with brains?  I can tell you from personal experience, they make a great stand-in when someone is desperate to add another tool to her toolbox.

[Tweet “What do oranges have to do with brains?”]

At the time I was working with addicts in early recovery. Most of my group members were frustrated to find the majority of their first impulses were destructive in nature. They were in a desperate race to develop new decision-making skills before encountering the next bad boyfriend or the “one time” drug deal “just to pay the rent.”  I was beyond delighted with a “eureka!” I could pass along.

[Tweet “Fifty-some women thought I’d lost my mind when I grabbed an orange…”]

It didn’t hurt that one of my groups was required for all the residents and took place in the only place large enough to hold them: the cafeteria.  Fifty-some women thought I’d completely lost my mind when I grabbed an orange from the fruit bowl during the classroom part of the session — until I repeated what the neurobiologist had shared:

Let the yummy, edible part represent the “unconscious,” automatic parts of the human brain. The orange skin is like a cerebral cortex, the uniquely human part where rationality and reasonableness live.  See?  The  part of the brain that can “talk us down” is not only much newer than the part that can get so freaked out, it’s also much smaller.

Primitive?  Yes.  Practical and useful?  Absolutely.  It made sense to my clients, too.  The “less conscious” part of the brain is big.  And smart.  Very smart. It automates. And sometimes that’s a very good thing.

[Tweet “Automation conserves space in the “thinky” parts of the brain.”]

In your day-to-day life (or your business) automating certain activities and building good habits leaves focus and energy for activities requiring both your full attention and the “smart part” of your brain.  Whether you set up the coffee pot before you go to bed at night or always wipe down the shelves in the refrigerator before grocery shopping, most of our lives are full of time- and consciousness-saving patterns and habits. Can you imagine what it would be like to approach your morning coffee as if it were a first time experience? Every day? Or if you had to concentrate on every eye blink and every breath?  Yikes!

English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Automation conserves space in the “thinky” parts of the brain — but it doesn’t know how to discriminate between good habits and bad.  No wonder we have to work so hard to become fully aware of a behavior or thought habit we want to change.

Moving it from the orange to the peel lets us go after it with ZEST! (And laughing about change makes it a whole lot easier.)




Andrea Patten is the author of The Inner Critic Advantage: Making Peace With the Noise in Your Head, now available on Amazon.

  8 Responses to “Oranges, Coffee & Brains… Oh, My!”

  1. Great analogy, Andrea. It’s wonderful that you share so freely with others who can benefit from your learning. Even though you begin referencing your role as student, it seems evident to me that your being a teacher/facilitator is your path. 🙂

    Oh, and now I know you have a sense of humor too! *Wink*

  2. I love incorporating tools in my teachings! Yes, thank God for having a habitual part to the brain, like you said if everything was new all of the time..yikes! It is also good to experience the habitual as the new. Since, that action requires work and concentration, having a sense of humor in the mix of it all is a great coping skill. Thanks for your article.

    • Lisa, my initial post was consumed by the ether… so, the second or third time I was writing this one I started to think about the importance of viewing that habitual as new. I believe the ability to make that shift — in either direction — is an important skill. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Maybe an idea for another post. Thanks for taking time to comment — much appreciated.

  3. Your final statement made me smile, Andrea. And I agree, the orange analogy is helpful. Knowing how the primitive part of the brain is larger makes me even more motivated to support the more evolved underdog parts of my brain.

    • Exactly right, Chara. Supporting those ‘newer’ parts allows us to turn that big, primitive part into an ally… but more on that later. Thanks for taking time to comment.

  4. Yes! That’s why some of the most successful people in the world wear basically the same outfit every day – removing all the unnecessary decision making. Love the analogy of our brain as an orange because it makes the brain’s functions so tangible. Thanks for sharing!

    • I had forgotten that example — but have a big collection of white button-down shirts. And, because I’m feeling a little goofy I read “tangible” as “tangerine.” What are we going to *do* with me????

Care to share? Hearing from you makes my day!

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