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Houston, we have a problem: Frontal cortex failure!

G'day mate! I just got back from a family trip to Australia and to put it simply, my brain short circuited. In this newsletter we'll cover:

STORY: Houston, we have a problem! This is a two part post. In PART 1, get the backstory and take a look at how travel with my mom short-circuited my frontal cortex. Oh, the joys of travel with family.

READ MORE: Additional Resources. Videos, articles and books to learn more about the frontal cortex.

BOOK STUFF: Book Club & Book Update. Join me 4PM PST Thursday, February 22, 2024 to discuss a pair of books: "Of Boys and Men" by Richard Reeves and "Untangled" by Lisa Damour.

GOING FURTHER: Leadership Identity Workshop. A full day of leadership development is coming Friday, February 23, 2024. One participant said: "This was more helpful and amazing than I ever anticipated." Another: "10/10 I highly recommend!" Hope you can make it!


STORY: Houston, we have a problem!


I just got back from a family cruise along the southern coast of Australia and Tasmania. Kangaroos! Koalas! Echidnas! The wildlife was my absolute favorite.

It really struck me how the boundaries between urban and wildlife was fuzzier, blurrier than here in America. Take the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo. Normally, a zoo keeps animals as ambassadors so humans can learn about them and appreciate the natural world. The Unzoo achieves that same mission by tearing down fences, planting native trees, restoring wetlands, and welcoming in the wild parrots, pademelons (tiny cousins of the wallaby), honeyeaters, opossums, and echidnas. Their Tasmanian devils are rescued from under farmhouses where they annoy townspeople with their devilish screams. Their kangaroos are far too friendly (and lazy) to fend for themselves. 

Animals come visit the humans, not the other way around.

But there were other fuzzy, blurry boundaries in Australia, namely the boundary between me and my mom, and the boundary between my neocortex and limbic system. 

Let me explain.


Before you read any further, let me put it out there that I really truly love my mom with all my heart. She and I just happen to share the same DNA and thus the same foibles. When I look at her, I see myself. 

My mom is a tiger born in the year of the ox. Fierce and focused like a tiger. Hard-working and stubborn as a ox. From the moment she woke to the moment her head touched the pillow, she worked. She made every meal, washed every dish, did every load of laundry, all while typing my father’s thesis, raising two girls, and building a hugely successful real estate business from scratch. The only times I ever saw her relax was when she would sing along to Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee as she made dinner. The hard work it required to achieve her own dreams were matched only by her expectations for me to eclipse them.  

In my parent’s household, dinner table conversations revolved around external things like academics, dinner plans, and chores. But when it came to what was going on internally, inside our hearts or minds, the only vocabulary we used was ‘fine’ and ‘not fine’. The rules growing up were: Don’t cry. Never scream. Obey your elders. 

So as a child, when my insides were ‘not fine’, I learned to ignore, hide, or compartmentalize it. For anything emotional, whether the searing intensity of young love or the trembling terror and shame of getting pulled over for speeding at 5 am while sneaking over to my boyfriend’s house, the best response was to hide in my bedroom with a book and never say anything at all. I got really good at ignoring my emotions. I learned from my mother, a master of the craft. Rather than dealing with all that intangible emotional mess in the heart, ignore it and attack something sturdy and tangible in the nice, neat, and orderly mind.. 

I put up some thick brick wall boundaries between my heart and my mind for a very very long time. Emotions: out of sight, out of mind.

I think that was why psychology fascinated me. I could dissect the inner workings of my emotions from within the safe, comfortable embrace of a textbook. When my high school psychology class started the chapter on emotions, I was shocked to discover that there were more feelings in the world besides fine and not fine. It’s taken me thirty years, a masters degree in Psychology, a PhD in Neuroscience, and certification in mind-body medicine to learn some emotional intelligence and break down those brick walls. 

Brain Organization Primer

The brain itself is built with divisions, and gateways between those divisions. An older but still relevant model of the brain organization was suggested by physician and evolutionary biologist Paul MacLean in the 1950s and 60s. He proposed that the brain had three functional divisions that could be roughly mapped to three anatomical layers: 

  1. Automatic stuff – Midbrain and brainstem

  2. Emotional stuff – Limbic system

  3. Thinking stuff – Neocortex

When I teach brain organization to kids, I get a volunteer to come to the front of the room. 

“Hey, Tessa, do you mind volunteering?” For those that don’t know, Tessa holds the official title as my “executive assistant” but actually is the wind beneath my wings who keeps me aloft.

“Sure thing, Irene! What should I do?”

“Hold up your hand.” (You might want to try this demonstration along with Tessa. All you need is your arm and two sheets of newspaper.)

Now, to orient yourself, imagine that Tessa’s arm represents the spinal cord with nerves taking information out to the rest of the body. Tessa’s palm is at the top of that “spinal cord” and represents the midbrain and brain stem. Those areas mediate all the automatic, unconscious things your body needs to do to stay alive. Heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, digestion, immune response, stress response, circadian rhythms – that kind of stuff. If your body does it automatically, then that’s a midbrain/brain stem thing.

“Tessa, can you curl your thumb and fingers over your palm into a loose fist?”


Now Tessa’s thumb and fingers represent the limbic system. They’re a whole set of brain areas that regulate emotions and motivation. In an actual brain, they curl over and around the brainstem and midbrain. All of my favorite brain regions are here in the limbic system (see above paragraph on “why psychology fascinated me”). The amygdala, nucleus accumbens, hippocampus, cingulate gyrus, mammillary bodies, and anterior thalamus are all members. If it makes you cry, scream, get chills down your spine not because you’re cold, or really really really want something desperately, then for sure, the limbic system is involved (see above paragraph on “young love and getting caught speeding”). 

“Alright Tessa, hold still a sec.” 

I pick up two sheets of newsprint, crumple them up, and smoosh them around Tessa’s fist, one wrinkled sheet on the left side of her hand, the other wrinkled sheet on the right. 

That wrinkly newsprint represents MacLean’s final layer: the brain’s neocortex. You know how the brain is all wrinkly on the outside? That’s because the left and right sides of your neocortex would each be approximately the size of a sheet of newspaper if you flattened it out. But it’d be kinda awkward to walk around with a flat skull like a hammerhead shark, so the whole thing got crumpled up by evolution and wrapped around the limbic system like a rumpled blanket. Your neocortex is the most recently evolved part of the brain where all the thinking happens. It’s where memories are stored, language is written, sensory data is interpreted, muscles are directed, and math problems are solved. The neocortex is the war room where decisions get made and big red buttons get pushed.

Now I also mentioned gateways between the divisions. 

The limbic system talks to the midbrain and brainstem mostly via the hypothalamus. This almond-sized brain area sit right at the very bottom of the brain and serves as the orchestral conductor of all the automatic stuff. Every single limbic structure talks to the hypothalamus, vying for the conductor’s attention, demanding that it’s emotional message get the chance to influence heart rate, arousal, hormones, etc.

The gateway between the limbic system and neocortex is the frontal cortex, located at, you guessed it, the very front of the brain. (It's the orange part of the image below -- thanks to the NIH for the graphics!). Emotions and thoughts influence each other back and forth all the time, and nearly all that communication happens via the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex is engaged in a massive list of roles and responsibilities – planning behaviors, delaying gratification, emotion regulation, working memory, making judgements, staying focused on a goal, changing goals as needed, and controlling impulses. I really love how Robert Sapolsky (New York Times best selling author of Behave, one of my neuroscience heroes, and my honors thesis advisor) summarizes the function of this gateway region: 

“The frontal cortex makes you do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do.” – Robert Sapolsky

So thus you have three layers:

  1. Automatic stuff – Midbrain and brainstem

  2. Emotional stuff – Limbic system

  3. Thinking stuff – Neocortex

And two gateways:

  • Hypothalamus – for emotional stuff to impact the automatic stuff

  • Frontal cortex – for emotional stuff and thinking stuff to talk to each other.

“Thanks for the help Tessa.”

“No problem, Irene.”

What all this brain stuff has to do with Australia and travel with my mom.

For the first 20 years of my life, I tried to be like Spock from Star Trek. I lived almost entirely in my neocortex and got really really good at disregarding anything that my limbic system, midbrain, or brainstem might be doing. I had trained my frontal cortex to be a one way street, sending thinking stuff down to the other layers, but refusing to listen to anything emotional or automatic coming back up.

Slowly, over the next 20 years, my frontal cortex reestablished two-way communication. Basically, I got in touch with my emotions and body. And not just via a chapter in my psych textbook. It’s called emotional intelligence.

But whenever I get around my mom, it’s like I revert back to my old, emotionally UNintelligent self. My frontal cortex completely short circuits. 

I want you to watch the following scenes from our day on Phillips Island as if you were a psych grad student observing people in a psych experiment:, as if you were in a lab holding a clipboard watching through a one way mirror. Look for the following:

  • Trigger – What emotional tripwire was crossed?

  • Limbic system hyperactivity – What big emotion is being felt?

  • Neocortex hyperactivity – What is the neocortex focused on like a laser beam?

  • Frontal cortex – What’s happening at the frontal cortex?

I’ll do the first one for you.

Scene 1 - Irene

We’re on a cruise ship waiting to catch the boat tender to shore to meet a private van to take us around Phillips Island for the day. There’s eight of us – my family of four, mom, dad, my aunt, and my uncle. It’s Owen’s birthday and he’s getting over a cold. 

Trigger = son sick on his birthday

Oh no! We didn’t pack cough drops. 

Limbic system = momma bear worry

I ask Owen, “Would some cough drops help your throat?” Hesitantly he replies, “I guess?” Game on. I must get Owen cough drops. 

Neocortex = laser beam focus on cough drops

I remember, my sister just bought cough drops so I race up three flights of stairs and down a mile of corridor to my sister’s room to get them. I’m itching to get back but my sweet four year old niece wants to show me her stuffies. They can’t find a ziplock bag to put the cough drops in. Finally, I race back to where everyone is waiting for me. I made the whole group miss our boat tender. we have to wait 20 minutes for the next one. All the while, a bag full of cough drops was sitting there in my aunt’s purse. 

Frontal cortex = failure. I’m stuck on the easy thing, the thing right in front of me, a laser beam focus on cough drops. My frontal cortex is NOT doing the harder thing (slowing down, asking questions, weighing options, prioritizing, connecting emotion stuff to thinking stuff) when it’s the right thing to do.

Scene 2 - Mom

Now that I’ve made us miss the first boat tender, my mom is freaking out about the possibility of the van leaving without us. 

Trigger = ??

Limbic system = ??

Mom made the booking. She has an email and phone number, so she shoots off an email. But an email isn’t enough. She must text the driver. 

Neocortex = ??

Mom tries my dad’s phone. My aunt’s phone. A nice Australian passenger offers to help. And then another. Soon half the cruise ship is trying to help calm my mom down and text the van driver. Do we even need to text the driver? After all, the only people the driver is waiting for are us.

Frontal cortex = ??

Scene 3 - Irene

We not only made it to the van, but had a wonderful, very full day with our driver. Now, it’s after sunset and we’re sitting on a wide expanse of beach, waiting for penguins. The little blue penguin is the smallest of all 18 penguin species standing only around a foot high. Every day, they go out fishing. Every night, they wait until after dark to come back to their burrows in the brush behind me. Crossing the beach is the scariest part of their day. As the darkness creeps in, I see a black shouldered kite make one final swoop over the beach before giving up. A thousand tourists crowd the boardwalk and beach in carefully fenced off areas, waiting for several thousand little penguins to come home. 

Trigger = ??

Whenever anyone asked me what I most wanted to see in Australia, I enthusiastically replied, “Penguins.” The first penguin washes ashore just in front of us. It looks around, decides it’s too scary, and belly flops back into the ocean. The next wave brings three little penguins to peek around. Still too scary and they all scurry back. Then five penguins … then ten … When a group of twenty are all bunched up in a tight crowd, they waddle up to the high tide mark, take a deep breath, and scurry the rest of the way up the beach in a line. It’s just about the cutest, coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

Limbic system = ??

We have fifteen minutes to get back to the van so I reluctantly gather my things and make my way back. The human crowd rivals Times Square on a Saturday night. It’s wall to wall people on the boardwalk, and ever so hard to keep track of Jason and the kids. I’m supposed to be focusing on getting us all back to the van…but…there on the other side of the railing is a juvenile penguin standing outside its burrow making soft peeping calls. As its parent waddles up, calling back, the juvenile flaps its wings fast as a hummingbird in excitement. The little one gets so overly excited, that it falls over on its back. It awkwardly rights itself, dashes up to its parent to ensure that mom/dad is still there, then flutters its wings again. I’m as giddy as that juvenile penguin until I realize that Jason’s glaring at me. Not only I did make a sharp, sudden detour amidst the stream of people as I bolted to the railing, I’ve made us late for the van. Again. 

Neocortex = ??

Frontal cortex = ??

Scene 4 - Mom

The last tender back to the cruise ship leaves Phillip Island at 10:30 pm. We caught the 10:15. My mom realizes that my sister Brenda hasn’t arrived yet. Did she make the boat? 

Trigger = ??

Limbic system = ??

Mom texts Bren at 10:20. At 10:25. At 10:30. She texts my brother-in-law. She must make contact with Brenda.

Neocortex = ??

It’s 11:00 pm and mom’s still texting. Where’s Brenda?

Frontal cortex = ??


Anytime I’m around my mom, my emotional intelligence goes out the window. I become just like her: a tiger born in the year of the ox. Fierce and focused on all the easy things right in front of me (not the harder thing when it’s the right thing). Hard working and stubborn as an ox (not slowing down, asking questions, weighing options, prioritizing, connecting emotion stuff to thinking stuff). 

It’s because the frontal cortex gateway at the boundary between my limbic system and neocortex short circuits. 

  • Trigger - There’s something happening in the world.

  • Limbic system - I feel a big emotion. It could be worry or excitement, stress or delight. Whether the emotion is negative or positive doesn’t matter. 

  • Neocortex - I have a big goal in mind.

  • Frontal cortex - But because the limbic system and neocortex aren’t listening to each other, it all goes wrong. I latch onto wrong goal. I lose situational awareness. 

You see, there’s four things that tend to short circuit the frontal cortex in people:

  1. Stress – A flood of cortisol and adrenaline overrides the frontal cortex. You don’t problem solve or strategize well under stress.

  2. Overwhelm – One of the many jobs of the frontal cortex is working memory, essentially your brain’s ability to juggle a limited number of things at once in order to make sense of it and make a decision. Throw too many things at the frontal cortex at once and all the balls fall.

  3. Strong emotions – When there’s terror, rage, awe, grief, or orgasm, the frontal cortex’s voice is drowned out by the strong emotion.

  4. Adolescence – You’ve probably heard how the frontal cortex doesn’t fully mature in humans until the mid-twenties. No wonder teens are so prone to taking the easy way out, to engaging in risky behavior, and to making bad decisions.

Whew! That’s enough for Part 1. Too much perhaps. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post which will reveal Irene’s top five strategies for how to reengage the frontal cortex when you need to. If you aren’t already subscribed to the Leader’s Campfire, go HERE to sign up so you won’t miss Part 2!


READ MORE: Additional Resources

If you’re new to neuroscience, try this great 2-Minute Neuroscience video on the frontal cortex. 

And for a lovely recent article on the role of the frontal cortex in changing your mind, this article in Scientific American about the work of neuroscientist, Kitty Xu.

Go straight to the source with MacLean’s quite readable masterwork: The Triune Brain in Evolution.

I have a bit of hero worship for my former honors thesis advisor, Robert Sapolsky. He’s the author of several New York Times bestselling science books, including Behave, which includes a fabulous overview of MacLean’s triune brain and lots on the frontal cortex. Though, beware, this particular book clocks in at 675 pages of hard core neuroscience. So if you’re looking for a taster, he’s got 2 fantastic TED talks to choose from.


BOOK STUFF: Book Club & Book Update

Yesterday, in book club, we had a far ranging conversation about sex and gender. Is addressing inequities between men and women a zero sum game? How do you raise boys or girls (or yourself) in this modern world where gender roles are no longer clearly defined? What societal fixes might help? It was a fantastic discussion that will continue next month.

Read your choice of: Of Boys and Men by Richard Reeves OR Untangled by Lisa Damour. Our next meeting will be Thursday, February 22, 2024 from 4-5 pm PST. E-mail Tessa at to be added to the list!

(In case you’re curious, my agent is currently circulating my book, Have Brain, Will Travel, to publishers. It’s utterly nerve wracking to sit back and let her do her job so I’m distracting myself by working hard on writing the rest of the manuscript. Fingers crossed…)



GOING FURTHER: Leadership Identity Workshop

Calling all Northern California folks! I’ll be leading a full day workshop on Friday, February 23, 2024 in Redding California where you’ll get the chance to rebuild your leadership identity from the ground up! 

This workshop is based on a standing-room-only summit for educational leaders who offered this feedback after the session:

  • Irene has a passion for what she does and it shows and is contagious. This was very insightful and I loved the tools she used such as having us go out and take pictures of our favorite quotes. Irene is one of the best presenters I've seen!

  • This was more helpful and amazing than I ever anticipated. It was engaging and had a lot of real life applications that are timely and relevant to me now. Amazing!

  • This really helped me reflect on my leadership style. I honestly didn't know that I had a leadership style. 🥰

  • This presenter runs the session as an excellent teacher using the strategies that help engage participants and promote retention of the material.

  • Irene was amazing! She lead us through a complex process that was very easy to understand. She was highly approachable and kept us engaged all day. The time FLEW by and I got SO much out of this session. 10/10 I highly recommend!

Learn more and get tickets HERE. 20% off if you bring a friend from your organization.

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