“The lizard brain is responsible for reproduction and anger and survival and fear. We’ve since built other brain material on top of that which gives us things like creativity, generosity, and connection. But the lizard brain, when it is activated, is brutal. That part of the brain takes over and says things like “‘I better not raise my hand because I might say the wrong thing and people will laugh at me. I better not reach out to that person and offer them something because they might take advantage of me. The lizard brain loves school. It loves being a cog in the system. Because it's soothed in those environments where it's safer than doing things that are foreign and untested. And that’s the only way it thinks. Black or white. In or out. Your lizard brain is here to stay, and your job is to figure out how to quiet it and ignore it. ”
This quote is from Seth Godin, author, marketer, speaker, with one of the most popular blogs in the world. Countless recurrences of Godin’s depiction of the lizard brain abound in the blogosphere. Debbie Millman, another one of my favorite creators, reinforces this notion, stating:
The reptilian brain– the oldest part of the brain– which sits right on top of the spinal cord, is the part of the brain that controls all of our involuntary activity– so our digestion, our eye blinking, our heart beating. It also controls things like our adrenaline. So if you were to walk across the street and nearly get hit by a car you couldn’t think at that moment, “adrenaline kick in, keep me safe.” That is something that happens involuntarily. Our reptilian brain hates uncertainty. It wants to keep us safe and secure. That is the part of the brain that is the deepest, most hard-wired part of who we are. It doesn’t like instability. It doesn’t like being vulnerable. The same way that you can’t will that adrenaline– you can never will your reptilian brain to be, “Woo hoo! Change, insecurity, instability, vulnerability, bring it on!”
In popular culture, the so-called reptilian brain, or lizard brain, gets a really bad rap. There is no ambiguity in these portrayals. I love Seth Godin and Debbie Millman. They’ve been great sources of guidance and inspiration for me, and, of course, countless others. I realize they’re not neuroscientists and it would be silly to critique their comments on the basis of their scientific accuracy, or lack thereof. But between the two of them and Tim Ferriss, from whose podcast Debbie Millman is quoted here, I would confidently bet that they reach more people than all neuroscientists throughout history ever have. In one month tens of millions of people will consume their combined content. I want to push back against this view of our primitive brain structures because it is oversimplified and precludes the profound benefits that engaging these regions, chiefly the amygdala and cerebellum, can offer. It also explicitly advises forms of internal resistance, as opposed to “listening” and deep understanding of these reflexes, and tacitly aligns with the larger narrative of disembodiment and the persistent dualistic conception of mind and body that remains prevalent in Western culture. Such views also seem to implicitly disregard the continued evolution of these regions. The “lizard” parts of our brain didn’t stop evolving when we stopped being lizards. They also hold the key to healing the most entrenched types of trauma.
I want to highlight what these areas of our brains have to offer and share a more nuanced view of how accessing them deliberately can be profoundly therapeutic, conducive to disrupting the sense of self, and the most efficacious route for healing specific types of trauma; as well as touching on broader ideas of movement-based or embodied practices that engage the parts of the reptilian brain, and how doing this can enable a deep, expansive, connected relationship to the world around us. These primitive brain structures are not something that is only capable of betraying us in our modern environment. While it would also be oversimplified, what I would like to see more of is a message opposite to Godin and Millman’s, something more like: “Want to increase creativity, intelligence, kinesthetic empathy, connection to your own body? Want to significantly move forward in healing various traumas? Engage the lizard brain! Nurture it, develop it, strengthen it, work with it. Integrate it.”
Firstly, to my mind these glib memes repeated in popular culture can’t make complete sense. Here’s another example from a popular blog to make it abundantly clear. Referring to entrepreneurial ventures, they write “You know that tiny voice inside your head that says, “‘That’s too risky. You’ll never make it. You’ll lose all your money. You won’t be able to pay the rent. Your employees will steal from you. You won’t have health benefits. You’ll starve. Your children will suffer. You’ll miss out on retirement benefits.” That’s your amygdala talking. It’s the creator of the fear response in your brain. Its job is to keep you safe from shark attacks, but its side effects include talking you out of your dreams.”
To attribute that debilitating “voice in your head” to your amygdala is not coherent. To say that the lizard brain is the source of our crippling self-judgment, obscene forecasts, or angry internal tirades doesn’t make sense. However facetious or rhetorical it may sound, I would ask: Are reptiles chronically crippled by self-doubt, hostile self-talk, wasteful rumination? Are they thinking “I better not help that other komodo dragon out because he might laugh at me.” No. they are not. Because they do not have our blessed higher order brain regions responsible for complex language, abstract conceptualization, or the burdensome weight of a self. Everything that is in verbal form is necessarily caused by these “more human” parts. The more evolved parts of the brain are responsible for everything beyond the initial hormonal release triggered by the so-called lizard brain. The subsequent interpretation and translation of these physiological states into language and persistent stress, fear, anxiety is done by our neocortex, an area which is uniformly celebrated by the popular view. It is because of our higher order brains that we are able to remain depressed, anxious, angry, fearful, regretful etc. for hours, days, months, years. Sam Harris illustrates the connection between thoughts and emotions this way:
“It can be liberating to see how thoughts pull the levers of emotion, and how negative emotions, in turn, set the stage for patterns of thinking that keep them active, and coloring one’s mind. Seeing this process clearly can mean the difference between being angry, depressed or fearful for a few moments, and being so for days, weeks, and months on end. Most of us let our negative emotions persist longer than is necessary. Becoming suddenly angry we tend to stay angry, and this requires that we actively produce the feeling of anger. We do this by thinking about our reasons for being angry - recalling an insult, rehearsing what we should have said to our malefactor, and so forth. And yet we tend not to notice the mechanics of this process. Without continually resurrecting the feeling of anger, it is impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments. You can learn not to stay angry (or whatever the emotion may be) for very long. Become sensitive to the interruptions in the continuity of your mental states. You are depressed, say, but you are suddenly moved to laughter by something you read or see. You are bored or impatient sitting in traffic, but then are cheered by a phone call from a close friend. These are natural experiments in shifting mood. Notice that suddenly paying attention to something else, something that no longer supports your current emotion, allows for a new state of mind. ”
However interdependent and simultaneous the communication of our brain regions may be, we can see that the lizard brain cannot be solely responsible for the type of suffering we commonly undergo. Thoughts continue to kindle that emotional state. Furthermore, certain emotional states, such as fear and excitement can have practically identical physiological profiles, and it can be a matter of perception whether or not we experience them as negative or positive. Regardless of the amygdala’s activity, it is our neocortex that determines whether we abide these self-limiting thoughts. This distinction is important because it makes clear the routes to take to alleviate such suffering. Instead of cursing our brain stem, we understand the emptiness of thoughts and are able more clearly experience passing sensations for the ephemera that they are.
The amygdala is what Godin and others are generally referring to when they talk about our fear response, but that region is no longer considered to be part of the lizard brain. The cerebellum certainly is, though. It's most established functions involve motor control, coordination, precision, and other movement-related functions, but there’s more to it than that.. In the summary of a study on cerebellar development in apes and humans, authors Richard Barton and Chris Venditti write:
Humans’ unique cognitive abilities are usually attributed to a greatly expanded neocortex, which has been described as “‘the crowning achievement of evolution and the biological substrate of human mental prowess’”. The human cerebellum, however, contains four times more neurons than the neocortex and is attracting increasing attention for its wide range of cognitive functions. Contrary to traditional wisdom, in the human lineage the cerebellum was the part of the brain that accelerated its expansion most rapidly, rather than the neocortex. During the evolution of monkeys, the neocortex and cerebellum grew in tandem, a change in one being swiftly followed by a change in the other. But starting with the first apes around 25 million years ago through to chimpanzees and humans, the cerebellum grew much faster. So although the rise of the neocortex is probably still the source of our mental prowess, it may be that it would never have worked without the cerebellum outpacing it. The extra coordination skills could then have unleashed other “technical” skills like making tools and fine finger movements, which in turn may have been a preadaptation for language. Some researchers, like Richard Byrne of the University of St Andrews in the UK, think that such technical intelligence is a defining feature of apes. The neocortex and cerebellum are densely interlinked, so we might mislead ourselves by focusing on one to the exclusion of the other. We should think about integration in the brain as a whole.”
Again, we see that painting our “newer brain material” as the luminous source of all virtues and the brain material we share with other vertebrates is invalid and obstructive. Understanding the roles all brain regions play and striving for integration is the real way to achieve the traits that the popular view claims only our neocortex can provide.So how can we explore our lizard brains more?
Wim Hof, known as the Dutch “Iceman” has a few techniques. He has made it part of his life’s work to explore and understand these brain regions in order to dramatically increase health, strength, and happiness. Defying another tenet in the popular conception, Wim appears to have demonstrated that it is possible to consciously influence our adrenal system, as well as our immune system. In 2014 he participated in a study where he trained 12 healthy volunteers in his breathing and cold exposure methods, while 12 others in the control group had no training. All subjects were then injected with an E. coli endotoxin and their immunes responses were measured. Here is the “significance” section from the study involving Wim Hof:
“Hitherto, both the autonomic nervous system and innate immune system were regarded as systems that cannot be voluntarily influenced. The present study demonstrates that, through practicing techniques learned in a short-term training program, the sympathetic nervous system and immune system can indeed be voluntarily influenced. Healthy volunteers practicing the learned techniques exhibited profound increases in the release of epinephrine, which in turn led to increased production of anti-inflammatory mediators and subsequent dampening of the proinflammatory cytokine response elicited by intravenous administration of bacterial endotoxin. This study could have important implications for the treatment of a variety of conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation, especially autoimmune diseases in which therapies that antagonize proinflammatory cytokines have shown great benefit.”
We are not at the mercy of these brain regions. To get an entertaining perspective opposite to Godin’s and Millman’s, here is a short clip of Wim Hof waxing lovingly in his non-native English, on the reptilian state. He says “The lizard is not thinking about the taxes and what he’s going to do tomorrow, how to secure his housing, mathematics; he’s just into food, fuck, fight, freeze, flight. That’s it. And it’s very real. Pure feeling." Now, this is not to suggest we should wish to continually live in such a state, but we all need more moments of pure feeling, especially in the West. Understanding how emotions manifest physiologically, and developing practices that improve interoception - our sense of the physiological condition of the body and how we represent it from within - are crucial for resilience and healing traumas.
Remembering to feel is not something that our culture and environment conduces. Bessel Van Der Kolk, a doctor and clinician who studies PTSD, argues that
"Western culture is astoundingly disembodied and uniquely so. We basically come from a post-alcoholic culture. People whose origins are in Northern Europe had only one way of treating distress. That’s namely with a bottle of alcohol. North American culture continues that notion. If you feel bad, just take a swig or take a pill. And the notion that you can do things to change the harmony inside of yourself is just not something that we teach in schools and in our culture, in our churches, in our religious practices. And of course, if you look at religions around the world, they always start with dancing, moving, singing… physical experiences. And then the more respectable people become, the more stiff they become somehow.
When you look at the political discourse, everybody can rationalize what they believe in and talk endlessly about why what they believe is the right thing to do, while your emotional responses are totally at variance with seemingly rational behaviors. We can talk till we’re blue in the face, but if our primitive part of our brain perceives something in a particular way, it’s almost impossible to talk ourselves out of it, which, of course, makes verbal psychotherapy extremely difficult because that part of the brain is so very hard to access. In complex vertebrates, including humans, the amygdala perform primary roles in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events.
I’d say the majority of traumatized people have very cut off relationships to their bodies. They may not feel what’s happening in their bodies. Yoga turns out to be a very wonderful method for traumatized people to activate exactly the areas of cautiousness, areas of the brain, the areas of your mind that you need in order to regain ownership over yourself. One way or another, what becomes very clear is that we need to help people to feel safe feeling the sensations in their bodies, to start having a relationship with the life of their organism, as I like to call it."
We can see that working with the amygdala and the rest of the “lizard brain” instead of silencing it, and not relying exclusively on our verbal, rational capacities, is the way to heal and deepen our relationship to our bodies.
Simon Thakur, creator of Ancestral Movement, is dedicated to expanding the relationships of people with the “life of their organism.” What he talks about is fascinating to me, and definitely highlights what our shared brain structures can offer. In describing some of his workshops, he explains
Modern, urban humans tend to have an appalling lack of body awareness and physical expression. I start people off by learning to move and feel their spines in great detail, segment by segment. Once you free up all segments of the spine and connect these undulating spinal movements to whole body movements and the limbs, you start to see very clearly how these movement patterns are the same ones seen in the big cats, in dogs, in snakes, lizards, fish, or all the other primates. There’s this whole world of movements inherent to our anatomy and in our nervous system which all come out of having a free and mobile spine linked with the limbs. Those movements are always there but are actively suppressed by modern culture. What I love is when, after teaching these movements, people really feel the truth of their shared ancestry. They look at a lizard and viscerally understand their shared ancestry, that the lizard is part of their extended family, and not in an intellectual, abstract way, but in a physical, felt sense.
In the parts of our brains where we feel our bodies, we have these subsets of neurons called called mirror neurons, which fire whenever we observe the movements of others. So, for example, when you observe someone reaching for food and putting it in their mouth, mirror neurons in the hand and mouth parts of your brain fire as if it were you reaching for that food. Part of your brain imagines the action and part of the brain actually feels it as if it were you doing that. So we constantly have this potential inner experience of literally feeling what other people are doing, which is what I call kinesthetic empathy. This, however, depends enormously on how well we feel our own bodies. So if you feel your spine as one rigid block, presumably due to a lifetime of sedentism, disembodiment, injury, etc., and you see someone performing sinuous, snaky spinal movements, you won’t get that mirror neuron response, whereas someone who feels their spine as a detailed, segmented, multi-dimensional section will feel expansive kinesthetic empathy.
This is one of the profound principles, in my view, of the deep value and therapy of movement practices and exploring the cerebellum and other primitive regions. You can have such an expansive experience moving through the world with this type of nourished nervous system, compared to the estranged, alienated feeling of being a “floating head” that many of us experience today. We might rarely perceive anything remarkable within our bodies day to day beside punctuated influxes of chemicals or acute activity, and probably feel profoundly unrelated or disconnected to ecology. Thakur goes on to describe how “We don't just get this effect when we look at humans. We get this when we look at any creatures moving with which we share body parts with. Hypothetically, if you had practiced mimicking the movements of the animals in your local regions, then when you watch them moving, you would get the feelings in your body of what they’re doing. This leads to tremendous kinesthetic empathy and visceral kinship with such creatures. Humans have this unique ability to contort our bodies and imagine in our minds the shape and experience of anything. A rock, a tree, a lizard, a baby, an old person, a valley, a rainstorm. This comes from this practice - which is far more ancient than language - that we have in our culture and in our heritage, of nonverbal storytelling and physical theatre. We come from this lineage of storytellers and actors who have continuously been describing everything in their environments and in their imaginations through gesture and contortion and mimicry.”
What distinguishes us from the rest of the animals is certainly our neocortex and it's boundless ability to create knowledge, but that doesn’t mean the rest of our brain isn’t the most human thing about us. It is often our “executive” brain functioning, our hypertrophied intellect that alienates us from our own bodies and other organisms and the environment. We’ve been regulating our amygdala through breath and interoception for hundreds of thousands of years longer than we’ve been employing verbal thoughts to “silence it.” It is through our more primitive brains that we can often reconnect.
We can also see how the most impassioned and knowledgeable stewards of ecology and the environment are often the ones who have the greatest kinesthetic empathy with it. A truly significant aspect of these approaches is cultivating curiosity. Developing an interoceptive practice, practicing wide-ranging, creative movements is probably the most immediate and accessible way to cultivate curiosity, the basic ingredient of intrinsic motivation.
These ideas also generally touch on the limitations of the hyper-intellectualizing culture we live in. Yes, we know exercise is good for us, but it is still too often approached, in my opinion, in a disembodied narrative. It is often still seen as what we need to do to keep our bodies in good order; whereas our cognition would still be optimized if we could just read and study and write and contemplate and ponder and listen as much as humanly possible. That is not true. It is wrong to say that creativity, generosity, empathy are products solely of our most recently evolved neocortexes. Want to make vast, powerful neural connections? Increase creativity, imaginative capacities, productivity, focus? Walk like a lizard. Hang upside down. Master a sport. Learn complex dances. Play with cubes. We have to take our nervous system through an enormous range of motion and positions in order to reach intellectual peaks. We should strive to fully meet the genetic expectations of our most primitive brain structures. Integrating these parts is crucial to healing and health and combating our sense of being alienated from both ecology and our own bodies.
So, consider how exploring new movements, embodied forms of therapy, strengthening interoception can work for you. Understand the implications of our reptilian legacy, and, to use one of my favorite aphorisms: “act your way into a new mode of thinking, don’t think your way into a new mode of acting.”
Huge thanks again to Bar Works for the amazing opportunity! They're a super cool co-working space and it was a privilege to shape some of the atmosphere there. This mural is on the front wall of their Miami office space, adjacent to my Dervish mural.