Beware of Lizard Brain

“The lizard brain is hungry, scared, angry, and horny.” ― Seth Godin

Human beings are an extraordinary species capable of both the ability for unparalleled creation and unimaginable destruction.  Think about it for a moment, we can do practically anything we conceive. From interplanetary travel to mass genocide, we are indisputably the most complex organism found in known existence. What’s that got to do with lizard brain? Let me share a little about what you would find if you were to slice open your head and take a look inside. At the core of your brain there are the brainstem and basal ganglia, also known as the lizard brain.  Located at the very bottom part of our brain, it’s the most ancient area of the organ.

I first heard the term “lizard brain,” in early 2018 when cousin JP mentioned it in casual conversation one day.  I hadn’t thought much about it until this past weekend, and only did when it was referenced in a podcast. Before I tell you why any of this is remotely relevant to our Discussion, let me give you a quick rundown on how this whole theory originated.

Officially, the theory is known as the triune brain hypothesis. It was developed by neuroscientist Paul MacLean in the 1960s.  MacLean was conducting an experiment on brain function using monkeys. In short, he put a monkey in front of a mirror, thereby pissing the monkey off (the monkey viewed his reflection as another competing male). The research then took out different chucks of the monkey’s brain so he could see what role different the regions in the brain might have on the primates aggression.  MacLean gave it the term “reptilian complex” (lizard brain) because he thought the section resembled the tissue that made up most of a reptile’s brain. The hypothesis proposed asserts that the brain evolved through an additive process: ie it grew outward with new layers of brain tissue surfacing on top of the old ones. When you think about this conceptually it makes sense.  Maybe not so much the idea that our ancestors might have been alligators, but that the brain grew/evolved on top of itself.

How many times have you found yourself doing something after saying you wouldn’t a few moments earlier?  That’s your lizard brain taking over. Our old lizard brain triggers fight or flight and provides basic survival instincts (food, sex, shelter). On the flip side, our newer human brain governs emotions, cognition, perspective and memory.   Whilst listening to the aforementioned podcast, which inspired this post, something in my newer brain clicked: that addiction, most of my life quite frankly, has been predicated by my lizard brain. From a young age this manifested in the excessive consumption of food (all pleasurable stimuli) and being excessively confrontational.  Again: “The lizard brain is hungry, scared, angry, and horny.” It’s curious to wonder how does this occur, is it cause or affect? Does this begin with environmental factors or hereditary, is it internal or external?

While I’m not exactly what you might call a cheerleader for recovery it’s fascinating that, even before the triune brain hypothesis was conceptualized, 12-Step programs recognized humans have a tendency to do things that they don’t want to do, in spite of rational thought, without understanding the logic behind these actions.  Under certain circumstances we are powerless over our behaviors. Once cognizant of this “autopilot” behavior we can stop our futile resistance, we can surrender, and accept what it is that’s out of our realm of control.

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