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Flat brain theory…what does it mean when our brain is flat?

By Brandy Browne

James Petersen (2015) describes the flat brain theory of emotions with a great description of thoughts versus emotions or feelings. For example, stomach functions “consist of our emotions or feelings–those inner nudges that let us know when we are uncomfortable, happy, excited, interested, attracted, irritable, angry, resentful, frustrated, curious. Feelings are our internal responses to the world around us, to what we’re thinking, and to our bodies” (Peterson, 2015, p 20). I have noticed that, for both my daughter and I, who suffer from anxiety, one of the first places that we notice discomfort is in our stomach. For example, if my daughter is feeling anxious and upset, she will likely tell me her stomach hurts or feels nauseous. She becomes “stuck” in these feelings. As an adult, I am able to pull more into my heart and head functions. The “heart” is where we are able to own our views and opinions. It requires recognizing that our feelings are just that, feelings. Finally, the “head,” or our brain, is the rational part of us where we can make decisions and choose how to respond to the feelings within our stomach and heart. For me, it might look like realizing that someone is not trying to be offensive, but that I am in an anxious state, and need to take some time for self-care before responding.

Items in Petersen’s discussion on “flat brain syndrome” really resonated with me as well. For example, Petersen (2015) also describes what happens to our brains when emotions swell and flatten the heart and head functions. He discusses how we should not hold people accountable for what they say and do when their brains are flat. This sounds loving and forgiving in theory, and to an extent, I agree. However, I struggle with agreeing with this statement when it is a regular behavior from someone. If every time your spouse gets angry, they say hateful things and expect to be forgiven simply because they were angry and did not mean it, that is a problem. In those instances, it makes sense to teach said person how to take time before responding in order to give their emotions time to get back into alignment.

There are four basic goals of listening to help manage the flat brain syndrome. First, reduce those things disturbing the emotions. It is so important to name and release our feelings, rather than bottle them up. I am guilty of holding my feelings in to the point where it physically damages my health for fear of upsetting someone or having to deal with confrontation, which I definitely tend to avoid. I am actively working on releasing feelings in an appropriate and healthy way early on in the emotional process to prevent this from happening. Second, clarify thinking by asking questions. Repeat what was said accurately, and then put it into your own words. “I think I’m hearing that you feel —-. Tell me more about that.” Third, increase self confidence. For me, this looks like taking part in activities that make me feel more confident and powerful in my personal interactions. Finally, make sure you are surrounded by friends who are supportive. As someone who struggles with depression and mental illness, as a whole, I can attest to the fact that it can be very isolating. Focusing my energies on improving the lives of others by being a supportive friend has definitely helped in the way that I am able to remove myself a bit from my own struggles.

There are concrete strategies for avoiding the conflict that goes with the flat brain tango. When you think about it, how do you feel after you “win” an argument? Most times, it does not make me feel better. In fact, I will likely feel worse. He calls for us to “decode” the message that those experiencing “flat brain” may be trying to inflect. For example, if my husband says, “The house is a mess. What do you do all day?” I might respond with, “It sounds like the messy kitchen is stressing you out. Is that what I’m hearing?” He would then likely respond with, “Yes, I cannot relax in a messy home.” Then, we have a starting point for an authentic conversation about how I can reduce his stress.

Petersen (2015) is calling us to improve our relationships. Listen deeply, ask questions to clarify thoughts/feelings, and take action to respond appropriately. In the end, being kind is almost always more important than being “right.” Additionally, we need to be attuned to our own moods and anxieties. If we are displaced emotionally, it is okay to take time to engage in activities that will bring us back into balance with ourselves for the sake of keeping our relationships positive.


Peterson, J. (2015). Why don’t we listen better? Communicating and connecting in relationships. Peterson Publications.

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