The human brain is amazing – a complex and beautiful work of art capable of astonishing feats. When I think about the brain, I often imagine it very much like this picture below:
(Image “intelligence concept” by ddpavumba courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)
We’re going to be looking at different parts of the brain in the upcoming weeks; today’s we’re starting with the developmentally oldest parts of our brains. This part of the brain is called the reptilian brain, because similar structures are found in lizard brains. I’ll leave the parts of the brain, accurate names, and a real diagram up to you to google; I’m concerned only with how this part of the brain affects your daily life.
It is easy to recognize the thoughts that are generated from your lizard brain, because they are focused almost entirely on what Martha Beck calls, “lack and attack.” So that beautiful graphic above might more accurately look like the one below for this week’s topic:
(Image “Gecko” by bandrat courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)
Like our reptilian friends, the only goal for this part of the brain is survival. Specifically your survival, and that of your DNA. Activities critical for this part of the brain are scanning for potential threats, sustenance, and mates. This is not the part of your brain that appreciates an excellent vintage of pinot noir and classical music – it’s the part that scans the street at night as you walk to your car.
If at any point I were thrown into the wilderness and asked to survive, I would be deeply grateful for the natural functions of my lizard brain. I am today grateful for the lizard brains of my ancestors, who played a huge part in ensuring that I’m sitting here typing at this very moment. However, in my daily life, I often find my lizard brain to be a hindrance…when I’m not conscious of it.
Here’s the thing – our lizard brains don’t have a heck of a lot to do in our current circumstances. I think it’s safe to assume that if you are reading this, you are not currently at risk of imminent death from starvation, exposure, or predator. The lizard brain is hard wired to search for threats, though, and it has to have something to do. I’ve come to think of my lizard brain as an employee in a very large bureaucratic agency. There isn’t REALLY enough to do to justify working full time. Nonetheless, working full time is necessary, and therefore the lizard brain will start making stuff up just to continue to meet its function. Just like an employee who carefully reviews a thirty page form, even though it doesn’t have a great deal of use.
So your lizard brain is still working for you full time, coming up with very helpful thoughts, such as,
“If you don’t get a promotion soon, you’re not going to be able to make it. Your bills will pile up, and then you won’t be able to pay your mortgage, and then the bank will foreclose, and then you’ll be homeless! You’ll have to live under the bridge and YOU’LL DIE!!!!!!”
“John is gunning for your position. You know he is. You better keep sharp and work late every night and prove that you’re better than him. He’s a threat! He’s after your job! And if you don’t do something about it, he’ll take your job and you’ll be fired, then your landlord will evict you, and then you’ll have nowhere to live and you’ll live on the streets and there won’t be any food and YOU’LL DIE!!!!!!!!”
“You’re way too picky about wanting soul love. You’ll never find it! You should just marry Jason – at least he has a great job and won’t leave you. Otherwise, you’re going to be alone! Alone forever! No one will want you and YOU’LL DIE ALONE!!!!!!!!!!”
Keep in mind, we’re sophisticated beings. Most of us don’t even acknowledge having thoughts like this to ourselves, let alone say them to other people. Worse, some part of us knows they sound ludicrous, and so we rationalize them into things we can (and do) say to others:
“I don’t think my talents are really appreciated at this company. If they don’t promote me this year, I am moving on to greener pastures.”
“John has been asking a few too many questions about the current project. I think he’s trying to steal my work.”
“Jason and I are very well matched in intellectual and lifestyle pursuits. I’m thinking the whole twin-flame, burning passion is a bit overrated. I mean…who has that long term? It’s a fairy tale.”
Now, I’m not saying these thoughts are guaranteed lizard thoughts; I’m just saying they might be. I can usually spot my lizard-based thoughts because they produce feelings of fear, anxiety, lack or scarcity. Next week we’ll be looking at strategies of how to handle lizard thoughts, but for this week, just notice what you lizard’s favorite themes are. Maybe it’s “I can’t leave work because my family depends on me” or “I have to make sure everyone knows I’m swamped at work or I’ll be fired.”
Leave a comment below and share your inner lizard’s main themes with us!