Why You Should Re-Train Your Lizard Brain

Apple. This image is CC0!

One morning my son was cutting an apple for his school breakfast. Being a first grader, he was used to his knife since kindergarten time. The whole family was in a comfort zone with that knife. Suddenly, while my son was fiddling with knife and apple, I saw the kitchen covered in blood from my son’s fingers. With my inner eye, that is.

You would think nothing really bad could happen. I gave my son a larger knife instead: one from our “adult’s knife rack” with a three inch blade and a good sturdy handle. From that moment onwards, preparing the apple was like cutting through butter for my son. I was much more relaxed.

This post is loosely inspired by "The Icarus Deception" by Seth Godin. I plan to pick up some more topics from this book, you will find them tagged with "icarus."

Had I listened to my lizard brain, I would have taken the knife from my son and finished the apple cutting. That part of my brain cried “danger zone” and the instinctive reaction in such situations is to completely avoid them.

In reality, something else had happened: the safety zone had moved away from the comfort zone and a re-alignment was necessary. The comfort zone was the short knife. We all were accustomed to my son using this knife. The new safety zone was not “take away that knife” but “give him a larger one.”

That is not the default choice my lizard brain would have cried for. On the other hand, it was right: that short knife suddenly had become dangerous. Well, the cry of the lizard brain was far too loud. As I kid I used to cut into my fingers a lot. Most of my fingers still show the signs, but I am alive.

Although the term may not be biologically fully correct, it is a nice metaphor for a part of our brain that is very old in the evolutionary sense. It is responsible for identifying dangers quickly, triggering the “fight or flight (or play dead)” reflex and muting the more conscious parts of our brain, the prefrontal lobe. Normally, the two parts co-exist in a balanced setting. In times of danger (or in the case of serious illnesses, like a depression) the balance is disturbed. Since the lizard brain can cry a lout louder, it tends to win the battle quite often.

This awareness of our lizard brain has been a good thing for the survival of our species. But in today’s world, the dangers it has evolved against (fire, lions, attacks from other primates, …) have become rare in many parts of the world.

The lizard brain is still there, so it looks for other pastimes. In some cases that is good, for example when it tells you to slow down on the highway. In other cases, it can be anything from a mere nuisance to a real danger. Recently I read that in Austria suicide caused by depressions is the most likely reason for death before the age of forty. Depressions are often caused by the wrong balance between lizard brain and prefrontal lobe.

  1. It can mislead you and prevents good ways out of a real or imagined crisis.
  2. It is not good for creative thinking.
  3. It is not able to find a conscious solution. That is the prefrontal lobe’s job.
  4. It can lead to a wrong alignment between comfort zone and safety zone, making you stick to your comfort zone instead of moving it to a new safety zone.
  5. It can kill you.

Coming back to my “son and knife” story: after the alarm cry from the lizard brain, conscious thought took over. It found a solution that was better than just taking away the knife. Re-aligning safety zone and comfort zone was the way to go. But it surely was not intuitive to move the comfort zone instead doing it the other way round.

The reasons for re-training your lizard brain also points to the training goal. You can imagine it as this inner dialogue:

“… OK. Shut up and let me work out a solution,” says the prefrontal lobe to the lizard brain.

On the other hand, it can be truly dangerous not to listen to the lizard in you. Or worse, if you get your kicks out of triggering it on purpose. Adrenaline junkies and other people who desensitize their instincts too much tend to have a short life or land in a wheel chair. Again, the solution is to listen to the prefrontal lobe – and to other people.

I’m looking forward to your comments. When was the last time your lizard brain made you do something foolish or prevented you from doing something good?

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