Primitive Brain – Fight or Flight – and Homework


Because Ben and I are both artists, and experience a large range of emotions, we’ve had to learn about anger and how to handle it, manage it, subdue it, understand it and live with it. We each have a tendency to fly off the handle and we’ve had to study the Primitive Brain otherwise known as the Fight or Flight part of the brain that reacts to danger or frustration with eruptions or disappearing acts. Understanding when all of a sudden one of us is clicking into Primitive Brain and not using our higher, more rational, problem-solving brain can help us redirect energy and try to focus ourselves on engaging the sophisticated part of our brain to sort things out instead of flipping out.

Which brings me to Math Homework.

There tends to be an instant frustration level when it comes to math for Ben, and it frustrates me because he blocks math on purpose. He has had breakthroughs with math in the past that were nothing short of phenomenal. Maybe it’s doubly frustrating for me to see him shut himself off from math because it was his design-minded brain that made me teach myself to learn to love math starting when he was quite small. Now I’m totally enthralled with it, and he hates it and thinks its stupid and he’ll never need it. I see all his artistic skill, and see that the world of engineering, design, computer graphics, movie magic in the special effects realm that he wants so badly to be a part of – would completely open up to him if he gave himself the chance to love math.

It’s almost as if because I’ve learned to love it so much on his behalf, he hates it. He can be so contrary.

That’s okay. I can be contrary too. That’s where he gets it.

So. We have this stalemate when it comes to math. It’s been pretty severe in the last year or two, where doing homework can be a grudge match and a stewing, simmering mess of drama. It can take forever, when really, we could be done already and on to something fun, but intensity keeps us in it and clenched jaws and scrunched up, scowling faces make us exhausted from the effort.

This year, right before school started, I had a bit of an epiphany. My mom and dad had just visited, and mom and I had gotten a little tense with one another, because she likes to try to get me to think like her. Dad even told me recently that when I was a kid, she’d say that I “should” think like this, or “should” do something like that. He said he always cringed and would try to get her to back off, but she tends to think she knows what will be best for me, and she’ll push because she knows she’s right.

I’ve known for a long time that the intensity of the issues that come up for my mom and I are very similar to the intensity that happens between Ben and me. In both cases, we are very much alike and so can butt heads. The problem is that during my teens, I raged against my mom and didn’t realize how much alike we are until I was grown. As a grown-up I call my mom all the time and enjoy her company and we can communicate on a level that is really fun. But as a teen, I wanted all the distance in the world. I don’t want that to happen with Ben, so I’m trying everything in my power not to push him away.

Right before school started, Ben said something about his life being over because he was going to have to go back to school. He was dwelling in the negative and moaning about having to go back to prison (which is so much garbage because he had fun last year). I always try to convince him how much fun school can be, because I loved school. I mean, I hated the drama of other kids in Junior High, but in general, I love school, I love learning, I love research papers and graphs and charts and showing my work in math. I am a nerd. Ben? Not so much.

Before I said anything this time, I realized that all the times I’ve tried to get him to see school the way I see it is doing what my mom does when she tries to get me to get excited about the idea of church attendance. I’ve tried it. I really have, and I can no longer do it. She wants me to keep trying to find in that setting what she has found, what she and my dad have dedicated their lives to helping people find. And I think, with everyone else in the world that she is working to introduce or help into an understanding about her faith, she is patient and attracts people with love and gentleness. With me, she wants to bonk me over the head and drag me there.

As I stood in that moment realizing I was about to pounce on Ben for the way he thinks, I stopped myself. I told him that my mom has been trying to not just teach me how to think, but What to Think all my life, and she still does, and I’m practically fifty years old. It doesn’t work, it’s frustrating to both of us, and I realized that when I try to get him to see school as fun like I see it, I’m doing the same thing.

We made a deal. I said that I would not try to tell him how or what to think about the idea of school. He can hate school in his mind if he wants to. I just don’t want to hear about it all the time. (We are in a school district that is doing all sorts of amazing things to be pro-student, and I have complete confidence that his hating school is not because school is actually bad or hurting him, but because he just wants to hate school.) He agreed to stop with the “My life is over because tomorrow is a school-day” routine.

We talked about Home being where we come at the end of the day, after school, after work, after being out there in the world where things don’t always go our way. We sometimes have all these frustrations built up, and home is where we can shake the dust of the world off our feet, walk in the door, and know that this is where the fun happens. This is where we sit together for dinner and enjoy each other and laugh and talk about all kinds of crazy, deep, philosophical things – or body humor, one or the other. Home is where we heal our hearts, and strengthen ourselves to go back out there and face our dragons again the next day. So, we agreed not to wear the anger of our days here. If we need to talk about something that happened, by all means, let’s do that, but we will not mope around the house, hanging our heads because school sucks, or work is hard. We just won’t do that.

So that was our deal, and it’s been working out really well for the first several weeks of school. Ben is happy and cheerful at home. I asked him on a walk the other night if his attitude is because he’s actually enjoying school, and he said no, but that art class is cool, and that he likes being able to shift gears when he gets to the gate on our driveway and know that now he’s home, and he can let his guard down and just have fun.

Then last night, he was in a rage over math and how stupid it is and how stupid he must be because he just doesn’t get it. The night before, when he started getting really angry during math, I realized he was going into primitive mind and doing fight of flight with math – that he wanted to stab it with his pencil or toss it across the room. I said something about it and wondered if he’d like to work on waking up his problem solving, higher brain. He didn’t. He grumbled that he liked his primitive brain, and then he started smirking.

Last night, after he started fuming, I reminded him that he was slipping into primitive brain again. He blew up at me, and said that maybe that’s all his brain can do. I took a deep breath and just looked at him – my brilliant artist son. I told him that when it comes to his art, I’ve never seen a more highly functioning brain; that the things he’s able to create out of nothing stagger me completely. I told him that watching him work in that part of his brain is a thing of beauty. Because I see that he uses certain parts of his brain with such skill and creativity, I remain convinced that he is capable of triggering a high functioning part of himself to understand math. He thought about that for a little bit, and then started talking about his primitive brain, and wondering why his brain only engages and gets excited about Art and Reading, why when it comes to math his brain wants to be so stinkin’ small and sulky and aggressive?

I don’t know, but something inside my brain started seeing the Fight or Flight response as a tiny, explosive, Yosemite Sam, all spitting mad and stomping, and that made me laugh.


We had one of those moments, where I got to be the proud mom I am, who worships and adores my kids, and I got to tell him exactly what I see in him, how amazing it is to watch him create when he is in an artistic mode. I told him I believe with all my heart that he will be able to reach down into his primitive brain somehow and use some sort of magic or smoke and mirrors to convince himself that math is like art and learn to enjoy it.

A little while later, while I was working on dinner, he came into the kitchen, slapped his math homework on the kitchen table with a flourish, and pronounced himself Done! I didn’t even have to fight with him. He did it on his own, and I saw the pride of accomplishment in his eyes.


Fractal image from here, Yosemite Sam image from here.

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