A friend of mine recently approached a passel of bees in a feeding frenzy on an orange container, wearing an orange shirt. As he described the obvious outcome of quickly finding himself surrounded by hungry bees, he mentioned that his “lizard brain” kicked in and told him to get the heck out of there, and I didn’t understand what he meant.
Thanks to this very lively story, I learned something new! It turns out that, long ago, scientists developed something called the “triune-brain theory,” which basically separates the brain into regions that they claimed were the “layers,” if you will, of the evolutionary development of the brain.
What is referred to as the “lizard brain” is the area comprising the basal ganglia and the limbic system. No, I don’t really know exactly what that means, but it is basically the base of the brain, the stem, considered in this theory to be the oldest part of the human brain, the foundation on which subsequent mammal and then human layers developed.
You could call it our primal core, and one Psychology Today writer, Dr. Joseph Troncale, had an interesting way of defining it.
“Many people call it the “Lizard Brain,” because the limbic system is about all a lizard has for brain function. It is in charge of fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing up, and fornication,” he wrote.
I am a sucker for a good example of alliteration, so he had my attention immediately, but I was also intrigued by the interesting combination of urges he credited to this primal part of our intelligence.
We often hear the concept of “fight or flight” in reference to our instinctive responses in the face of danger, but how does that relate to feeding and fornication? Very strange, indeed.
If you have ever sat along the back fence at the River Dog Outpost, you have likely had the opportunity to take in the show performed by the resident male green anole lizard. I have seen it more than once and it cracks me up every time.
After you have been seated for a while, whether alone or chatting with friends, this little guy will decide it is safe to take his catwalk along the top of the fence. He will venture out, pause for a moment, bob his head up and down and tilt it to better observe you and the scene before him. Then he will blow out his bright red pouch, his form of showing off.
Green anoles are fascinating lizards, so much so that I have a painting of a pair of them on the wall by my bed. They are often seen in a beautiful shade of bright green but are able to transition to brown, depending on mood, level of stress, activity level or as a social signal.
Female anoles have a white dorsal stripe down their backs, while the males sport a ruby dewlap on their throats, used to claim territory and attract potential mates.
When I read about the “lizard brain” concept I couldn’t help but think of that little guy who guards his turf at the River Dog. He definitely is driven by those six “Fs” defined by Dr. Troncale.
He functions out of Fear that keeps him on constant alert and is ready to Fight if another male shows up, Fly when a human approaches (who really just wants to take a good picture, geez), or Freeze if he realizes there is nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. And, of course he is also driven by his need to Feed for survival, and to Fornicate for the good of the population.
Thank goodness we humans are so much more developed and, therefore, more complicated than that, right?
Or is that a good thing? I work mostly from home and whenever I catch one of my cats lounging on the bed in the middle of the day, I can’t help but feel a little jealous. They have very little that motivates them beyond this “lizard brain” logic and, when my life seems most complicated, I’m envious of the simplicity of their existence.
Of course, we humans can do so much more! We can create so much more, discern so much more, and develop loving and lasting bonds with our friends and “mates.” But aren’t we just as often guilty of making things more complicated than they need to be?
Actually, Dr. Troncale proposes that recognizing the “lizard brian” response is the key to healing addiction and other confusing behaviors in humans.
“Understanding this automatic behavior allows us to surrender to what we cannot control. It frees us to do the next right thing by staying in the present rather than worrying about the future or being shamed and experiencing guilt about the past,” he explains.
Well-known entrepreneur and author, Seth Godin, also talks about the need to control the “lizard brain” in the pursuit of success. He points out that it is when we let the fear factor overtake us that we begin to make choices that sabotage our potential for success. I can certainly attest to that, can you?
I’m glad that my friend’s lizard brain flight trigger kicked in before his logical recognition of the insanity of presenting himself in feeder clothing to a hoard of hungry bees. He might have had a painful outcome, had his brain not triggered a retreat.
But, I’m also glad that his story prompted me to research this primal phenomena and remind myself of the ways that it can work for bad, as well as good.
Be wise, dear friends, and don’t allow your fear factor lizard brain to thwart your higher intelligence. We have too much to accomplish together to let our fears get the best of us.
In other words, keep calm and carry on.