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The Upstairs and Downstairs of the Brain: Part One

The Upstairs and Downstairs of the Brain: I love Dan Siegel’s analogy of a house to explore the upper and lower parts of the brain, it is also a great way to explain it to children.


The downstairs brain, often referred to as the reptilian or primitive brain, contains the brain stem, limbic region and the amygdala.  This instinctive part of the brain is well developed from birth and is responsible for:

  • Basic functioning – breathing, blinking, heart beating, flinching, digestion etc.
  • Innate responses – fight, flight, freeze and flop.
  • Producing strong emotions such as anger and fear.

When viewed as a house it is where all necessities of living occur, the kitchen, laundry, dining, living room and bathroom. 


The upstairs brain is significantly more sophisticated than the downstairs brain and is made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts, in particular the middle prefrontal cortex located behind the forehead.  This part of the brain is responsible for higher order thinking and planning, imagining, analysing, problem solving and sound decision making.  The upstairs provides a fuller perspective of the world and enables us to emotionally regulate and to have control over our body.  When this part of the brain is working well, we are able to utilise self-understanding, empathy and morality, as well as consider consequences and think before we act. 

Within the house analogy, the upstairs brain can be imagined as a light filled, airy, second storey study, library or bedroom filled with windows and sky lights, enabling us to see the world more clearly.  The upstairs brain does not reach full development until our mid-twenties and thus this upstairs level of our house remains under constant construction and renovation until then – with parts of the roof missing and debris lying all around the floor. 

So what does this mean for our children? 

Put simply, this part of the brain is not capable of functioning all of the time and thus children cannot always access their ability to make sound decisions, control their behaviour or show empathy.


The two levels of our brain are linked by a metaphorical staircase that allows the flow of information up and down the stairs from the upper and lower brain.  This enables the upstairs to monitor the actions of the downstairs and calm strong emotions, reactions and impulses.  When working well, the staircase enables us to consider the emotional and physical messages coming from the downstairs brain and use the thinking and analysing upstairs brain to determine a course of action. 

As parents, our goal is to help build and reinforce this metaphorical staircase allowing for vertical integration between the upper and lower parts of the brain.  This integration in turn helps to strengthen the staircase by encouraging the free flow of messages to travel up and down the stairs. 

In times of high emotion and stress, when the amygdala becomes involved, children can find themselves being ‘trapped downstairs’ unable to access the logic and consideration of the upstairs brain.


The amygdala is a small almond shaped structure located within the limbic system of the downstairs brain.  The amygdala is responsible for processing and expressing emotions, especially anger and fear and is always on the lookout for danger or times when we feel threatened.  When the amygdala senses danger, it can overrule the upstairs brain and take over, enabling us to act before we think, a highly useful survival response. 

In normal everyday life however, when we are not in mortal danger, acting before we think is not always the best way to proceed and can result in what Dan Siegal refers to as ‘Flipping our Lids’ (Siegel & Bryson, 2012).  When this happens, the amygdala takes control and relieves the upstairs brain from becoming involved. 

In children, the amygdala can fire up often in times of high emotion and stress, shutting the ‘baby gate’ at the bottom of the stairs and restricting access to the upstairs brain.  When this happens, children can find themselves not only contending with an incomplete upstairs brain but also not being able to reach the parts of the upper brain that do work.  This can make it very difficult for them to act calmly and reasonably or to use sound judgement.

Recognising this as parents can be extremely beneficial as it enables us to hold realistic expectations of our children and their behaviour.  Sometimes they are able to reach and utilise their upstairs brain and sometimes they are not – often they are doing the best they can with the brain they have.  Is poor behaviour excusably in our children when their ability to access their upstairs brain is hindered?  No not really.  We can understand why it might happen; however it is important as parents that we help guide our children towards appropriate behaviour that is in line with the values we hold for them and ourselves.  So how do we do this? Stay tuned for Part Two.


This post is written by Anna Young B.Nursing, GradDipNursing (Mental Health), M.Counselling, a Nurse Counsellor in Brisbane and mother of 2 kids.


Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to
nurture your child’s developing mind. Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe Publications.


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