Beware of Lizard Brain

Lizard Brain Beware

“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. Humans have accomplished everything from interplanetary travel to mass genocide. Making us 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’d find if you sliced open your head and took 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, scientific hypothesizes believe it to be the most ancient area of the organ.

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

Lizard Brain

Neuroscientist Paul MacLean developed the theory, officially known as the triune brain hypothesis, 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 researcher then took out different chucks of the monkey’s brain. MacLean was trying to see what role different regions might have on the primates aggression.

MacLean gave the innermost section the term “reptilian complex” (lizard brain). Named this because he thought the section resembled the tissue that made up most of a reptile’s brain. The proposed hypothesis asserts that the brain evolved through an additive process. In other words, it grew outward with new layers of tissue surfacing on top of the old ones. When you think about this, conceptually, it makes sense.  Maybe not so much that our ancestors were alligators, but that the brain grew/evolved on top of itself.

In Real Life

How many times have you found yourself doing something after saying you wouldn’t a few moments earlier?  That’s 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 that inspired this post, something in my newer brain clicked. Addiction, most of life quite frankly, had 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?

I’m not exactly what you call a cheerleader for recovery. Nonetheless, I’m fascinated that, even before the triune brain hypothesis was conceptualized, 12-Step programs recognized a human tendency to do things that they don’t want to do. Actions done in spite of rational thought, without understanding the logic behind them.  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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