The Hand Model of the Brain Blog #12

An easy way to describe and teach the functions of the  brain based on Dan Siegel Clinical Professor of psychiatry at UCLA. Also inspired by terminology from OT instructor Julia Harper.

The Brainstem


Imagine that your hand is a brain. It sits on the spinal cord represented by your arm. 

Now what connects the spinal cord to the brain is  brainstem. This is represented by the wrist and base of hand. 

The brainstem is responsible for your survival: eating, sleeping, breathing and safety. 

OT instructor Julia Harper compares it to TSA in an airport because the brainstem is constantly evaluating the importance of information.

 The brainstem can trigger a protective response if needed. This is the “fight and flight” response. 


The Limbic System and Amygdala

If you take your thumb and wrap it into your hand this is the part of your brain that is connected to feelings, the limbic system.

On the limbic system (represented by the thumb) is an alarm system called the amygdala.  

Limbic System
Amygdala and Limbic System

This part is looking for things that might be dangerous like a smoke detector. It can send alarm to your whole brain when there is danger. 

This might alert you to a smell of gas or a snake on the trail.

Surprisingly, one of the kids I worked with already knew about the amygdala from his counselor. This came in handy when we were using other imaginative tools. 

For example one of his identified “villains” could trick his brain into only paying attention to his amygdala. For him it caused anxiety and sometimes panic attacks which are much improved now. 

Side note: the limbic system or the feeling part of your brain helps makes memories. It directly attaches to the memory systems. 

This is why highly emotional events get solidified into memory more than mundane activities. 


The limbic system is also the part that has us yawn when we see someone else yawn. It is key to the development of relationships.


The Cortex


Moving higher up, if you wrap the rest of your fingers around the thumb the rest of your fingers are the cortex. This can be described as the “thinking” part of your brain. 

By the way, kids love it when it is personified with eyes or a name. One kid called it “Fred.”

The cortex helps to figure out what the rest of the brain doing and helps you pick what you want to do.

It can help you verbalize what you feel. Such as “I feel scared.. sad..mad etc” 

This part helps us figure out what to with the information from the lower parts of our brains.

Therefore the cortex helps us say what we need.  For example, “I need alone time” and “I need a hug” or “I want you to pay attention to me.”

You can think of this part as CEO or boss of the brain. It pulls everything together and helps you weigh and choose actions.

Flipping a Lid
Flipping a Lid

Flipping The Lid

Dan Siegel describes when the cortex is not operating as “flipping the lid.” This is illustrated by the fingers are lifted up. 

This results in a person having a meltdown or a tantrum.

Siegel describes this loss of control as when there are too many impulses coming from the lower parts of the brain. 

(This is why using “bottom-up” regulation strategies targeting fight and flight responses is so important). 

If you are wondering how to teach this to younger kids between late 3 to 4 years old, Jeanette Yoffe Child Psychotherapist made a video that simplifies this model even more. 

She put on a sock puppet animal on her thumb to represent the “animal” or  “feeling” part of your brain. She calls the rest of the fingers as the “thinking” part of your brain. 

Good news is: brains have the ability to change constantly. (This is called neuroplasticity which is covered in this blog on sensory processing). 

To learn more about top-down strategies and bottom-up strategies for our free emotional regulation for this Sunday May 23rd Click here  . 

Subscribe and stay tuned for more OT-relevant information such as more primitive reflexes and how to reach other parts of the brain with therapy!