There are essentially two main parts of the brain, the cortex and the limbic system. The cortex is the spongy part of the brain that sits on top of the limbic system. The cortex is responsible for higher functioning activities. While the limbic system is primitive and primarily concerned with survival.
The limbic system is a dense structure that predates human life and human development.1 According to researchers, the limbic system developed millions of years ago and was found in lower forms of life such as invertebrate phyla, mollusks and anthropoids.2
The limbic system is a part of the brain that is very powerful that pushes us to seek pleasure and escape pain, as they are crucial part of survival. However, values and morals do not exist in this region. The prefrontal cortex, a spongy part of the brain that sits on top of the limbic system, is where values and morals exist. It warns us of our actions and unhealthy appetites and keeps our pleasure seeking limbic system in check.
The brain has been called a “team of rivals”3 because many of its parts are constantly pushing and pulling against each other. In this case, the limbic system “wants” to seek pleasure, sends us urges and cravings that may not necessarily be good for us, while the prefrontal cortex warns us of such behaviors.
Additionally, similar to an iceberg, researchers believe that nearly 90 percent of human behaviors are subconsciously driven by this limbic system.4
The limbic system is tied to the autonomic nervous system. These behaviors manifest themselves when you step outside in freezing temperatures and your body begins to shiver. It controls the beating of your heart or the blinking of your eye lids. You do not consciously control these things, they just happen.
Understandably, people have little control over cravings or urges. They happen, regardless of their desire to stop it. That is why successful addiction treatment uses evidence-based practices to appropriately respond to such urges, instead of trying to fight or suppress them which has shown to increase their strength.5