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Do we have a lizard brain?

It’s not your lizard brain – it’s the culture

I’m sick of hearing about the lizard brain.
You know the drill: the seat of our fear. Blah blah. It’s like the ‘sabre tooth tiger’ meme – if I hear yet another personal-development coach talking about how we’re programmed for ‘flight or fight’ because we had to run away from sabre tooth tigers… please spare me your tired metaphors.

The lizard brain is a myth. I don’t mean ‘myth’ in the disparaging sense of a ‘lie’ or ‘delusion’, I mean it in the sense that it is a symbolic story for a cultural paradigm.

Even people whose ideas I respect still fall into the use of this old cliché, without questioning it.

“Your lizard brain is hungry, scared, angry and horny… the lizard brain only wants to eat and be safe… the lizard brain will fight (to the death) if it has to but would rather run away. …the lizard brain cares what everyone else thinks, because status in the tribe is essential to its survival. …Wild animals are wild because the only brain they possess is a lizard brain. The lizard brain is not merely a concept. It’s real, and it’s living on the top of your spine, fighting for your survival. But, of course, survival and success are not the same thing… the lizard brain is the reason you’re afraid… The lizard brain is the source of the resistance.”

Says the otherwise very smart Seth Godin in Linchpin. Not only does he conflate some biological impossibilities in his metaphors (lizards are not tribal, for example), he has fallen prey to the cliché (nice image isn’t it, clichés skulking about looking for people to prey upon?).

In fact, the ‘lizard brain’ is a misnomer, and lumping the amygdala with the lizard brain is a total furphy.

Not only is the amygdala not a lizard brain, the idea that the primitive reptilian brain is nested inside our larger human brain may make for colourful metaphors but it’s also inaccurate.

Scientists come up with theories and these work their way into popular culture where they continue to be presented as a scientific fact even when the original theory has evolved.

“One reason that the triune-brain model has so captured people’s imaginations is that it is so simple and meshes so perfectly with a very old conception of the three basic elements of human nature: will, emotion, and rationality (or, more colorfully, ‘gut, heart, and head’). This model thus posits three brains that emerged in succession in the course of evolution and are now nested one inside the other in the modern human brain: a “reptilian brain” in charge of survival functions, a “limbic brain” in charge of emotions, and the neocortex, in charge of abstract, rational thinking.” (Source)

Ideas about brain modelling have changed and the triune brain is considered out of date. It’s now recognised that reptiles and mammals diverged at some evolutionary point and reptiles developed their own cortex, so they simply have a different brain altogether.

Why does it matter? Am I just being pedantic?

Certainly, myths do not have to follow scientific facts, and even if the original brain model was shaped by cultural notions of human nature isn’t the lizard brain analogy simply making a point that we need to confront our natural tendency to fear in order to live our full life potential? Thus, it’s about the effectiveness of the personal or business coach’s process rather than whether his or her metaphor is actually scientific?

Well, yes, the results are what’s important. However, if you are going to frame method within brain science at least check the science.

But there is a bigger story here that we must challenge: are we really biologically wired for fear?

What if, instead of offering evolutionary leaps, that personal development metaphor is locking people into an old paradigm; adapting them to fit a dysfunctional world view rather than assisting them to transcend it?

So, bear with me as I dismantle this cultural myth of our “hungry, scared, angry” lizard brain, this biological tendency in our animal nature, which we must overcome to be successful humans.

What is the impact of this idea that we, like all other animals, are ‘wired’ for fear and that we must overcome this biological instinct in order to become more successful humans?

There is a direct line from ‘overcoming’ our animal nature to the notion that one must strive to be superior not only to animals but also to other humans.

This idea has been around as long as the concept of ‘civilisation’, and overcoming stuff is entwined with the very human need to be in control.

Our intention to master whatever gets in between us and our ambitions (or threatens our sense of safety) has produced our extraordinary knowledge systems and our technologies. And yet, faith in our superiority and our divine right to exploit any and all resources has long been used to justify the oppression of ‘other’ people (ethnic cleansing, slavery), to create systems that ultimately destroy environments (fossil fuels, pesticides), and to convince ourselves that we can master everything including the weather.

Back in 1852 Herbert Spencer coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. Seven years later Darwin provided the theory that evolved ‘survival of the fittest’ into Social Darwinism, founded on the idea that the biologically superior members of the species will survive. How ‘superior’ is determined depends upon interpretation and cultural bias, but that’s another story. (We saw how effectively Hitler dealt with that one). The theory that evolution is a competition that determines who’s superior conveniently reinforced the accepted social paradigm of the 19th century. It also shaped scientific research, creating a feedback loop that confirmed the social theory!

Thus, progress and, by inference, superiority is all about overcoming that pesky lizard brain.

Fortunately, unless you live in Richard Dawkins’ universe, cultural thought has moved away from its obsession with competition as the basis for evolutionary ‘survival of fittest’. The late 20th century brought a shift in social attitudes and, due to the inevitable feedback loop between science and society, hypotheses about the value of cooperation began finding evidence that cooperation is equally as important for survival. (Could it be that half the story had never been told due to the inherent masculine bias of science? Something to explore another day.)

While nothing in science is ever concluded, at least the research is now taking us beyond the ‘fight or flight’ scenario of ‘survival of the fittest’.

One small but significant shift: researchers now consider the amygdala isn’t simply a threat detector ‘fighting for our survival’. Its function is much less emotionally charged than that:

“The amygdala appears initially to evaluate the relevance of stimuli, and then to tune the individual’s overall cognitive and emotional response.”

When it comes to the way we move through our environment it makes sense that ‘uncertainty is more arousing than what’s familiar’. However, some now argue that the amygdala is alerting us to anything that might be ‘important to furthering one’s goals and motivations’ and this depends on the psychological state of the individual.

The amygdala is not ‘the fear centre’. The amygdala is the part of the brain that sorts ‘different’ from common/ ordinary/ normal. In the face of difference there are more responses than fight or flight, otherwise the human race would never have exited Africa. Curiosity shapes the human as much as fear (and it’s the same for many animals).

If we can watch Attenborough’s plethora of wildlife documentaries without paying too much attention to the survivalist clichés – and making allowance for the artifice of filming documentaries – we can witness the behaviour of animals. Does a gazelle spend all its time examining the environment for lions? And how is it that you can see a combination of animals that would normally be the eaten hanging out around water holes with animals that would normally eat them? I’m not saying they’re socialising together, but I am saying their amygdala hasn’t got them running in the other direction.

Even animals cannot survive in a constant state of fear, for the simple reason that all those functions of the parasympathetic nervous system like digestion and reproduction would just not work, leading to demise of the species. Thus, if life on earth is dependent upon ‘fight or flight’ there’s unlikely to be any life.

Detection of difference is an innate animal instinct. This is the amygdala’s job.
Fear is a response to uncertainty, a recognition of difference, but it doesn’t have to be the only response.

And to what degree is fear primed by culture?

What if this cultural habit we have of always trying to be in control is flooding our amygdala with stress chemicals, sparking fear and suppressing our innate instincts for appropriate action in any given moment?

Because it gets more interesting when research reveals cultural nuance in what activates the amygdala.

While it’s well established that the amygdalas of depressed or anxious people are triggered by negative stimuli, a 2013 study considered whether happy people simply had a less active amygdala because they are less fearful. What researchers found surprised them: happier people showed amygdala response to positive stimuli, but while their amygdala tuned into the positive stimuli this “did not come at the cost of losing sensitivity to the negative”.

In other words, they weren’t happy because they could ignore unpleasant things, but instead their amygdala had a balanced response to both extremes.

The researchers propose that instead of focusing entirely on avoiding personal harm, the amygdala is involved in empathetic response as it’s also activated by seeing others in need.

This suggests that our amygdala is primed by our psychological state, and how can we separate our mental or emotional state from our cultural milieu?

Neuroscience labels a person’s capacity to regulate their emotional reactions as their ‘affective style’ and considers it a combination of nature and nurture. And if the role of the amygdala is simply to help us know what signals to pay attention to this makes it a neutral observer, that is then overlaid with cultural patterning.

This is not to say that babies are born as blank slates with neutral amygdalas. It’s much more complex than that with an unborn child already affected by layers of cultural practices, as well as environmental and social conditions, which humans may or may not be able to control.

Levels of anxiety can be ramped up by the in-utero experience, which is intimately linked to their mother’s environment, her psyche and her social situation. Even the grandparents’ experiences affect the baby’s gene expression through epigenetics. And recent microbiome research tells us that before we’re born our mother’s microbial world is already impacting our emotional or mental propensities, which are entwined in multiple ways, with these microbes through our gut-brain axis and neuro-biology, (amygdala included).

We also can’t discount medical-cultural practices that affect the microbiome, the chemical body burden of living in toxic environments, and the stress of trauma or unjust social systems.

Fear is not a biological imperative, it’s a cultural zeitgeist.

Fear is a secondary response, not an automatic primal response to a changing environment.

The amygdala looks for the unfamiliar in the environment, and it’s believed that it then checks in with memory to determine action. The response is mediated by the neurotransmitters already circulating through our system, and thus can’t be divorced from our general state of mind. As mentioned this could involve stress reactions from not feeling in control, canny assessments of opportunities, and compassionate consideration for the needs of others. And the activation involves more than visual cues, including information from other senses and underlying intuitive responses beyond our logical mind.

The amygdala is intricately connected into the larger awareness of brain, body and environment, and it’s responses are intimately related to our psychic-emotive state and our life experience .

Children raised in some indigenous Amazonian tribes self-learn not to put their fingers in the fire through a natural combination of curiosity and awareness. Such ‘laxness’ would be considered severe neglect in our society where we’re constantly protecting children from their own curiosity.

In his book The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Malidoma Somé makes this point:

“… the inability to perceive, the inability to understand, to indigenous people is symptomatic of an illness. If your psyche is disordered or deficient or overcharged, blocks are created in you that prevent comprehension and remembering…Another form of this illness is the inability to accept of even tolerate those who are different from us. Worse, this inability encourages suspicion, fear, and resentment. Thus, it is an illness of the collective psyche when different cultures don’t understand one another.”

Our history has many stories of what happened when Europeans encountered other cultures. These encounters between very different people didn’t always play out as conflict, but most of them did. From the conquistadors seeking gold in the Americas to slave labour for sugar, to grasslands for cattle, European ingenuity required the oppression of other cultures that were often times regarded with disdain and fear.

Looking back at this behaviour now, it’s hard not to see how the cultural, religious and commercial justifications of superiority reveal an illness in the collective psyche.

Economic systems that thrive on dominance and control of ‘resources’ create societies focused on competition – and a pervasive sense of not having enough (money, possessions, health, love). That certainly primes our amygdalas for fear!

“Uncertainty is more arousing than what’s familiar,” but the way our individual psyche deals with uncertainty is connected to our cultural training.

A healthy response to uncertainty involves dismantling a culture based on fear, and its deep roots in our psyche.

Thus, focusing on our own joyfulness and contentment may be a grassroots way to effect cultural change – in addition to all the other health benefits it offers.

As simplistic as this sounds,  the most important clue offered by new insights into the amygdala: the more present we are in the moment, and the more we generally feel content with ourselves, the more likely our response to uncertainty and difference will be curiosity and openness instead of fear.

And the more likely our healthy instincts will lead us to the best response.

So, let’s see ‘fight or flight’ biological essentialism for what it is: survivalist propaganda that encourages a certain type of cultural zeitgeist – by which I mean it was an idea that captured the imaginations of cultural thought-leaders of the 19th and 20th century. It not only created the evolutionary biology paradigm, it shaped the story of progress.

And from there it captured the imagination of an already very fearful (unequal, unjust and warlike) society, and the rest is history. Leading all the way to where we are today.

It’s time to move on from this story.

The infinite dance of dynamic equilibrium

Balance. Now there’s a thing to contemplate. We keep talking about a need for more balance in our lives as we feel flung this way and that by demands, obligations, the unexpected and the unplanned.

Underneath all the noise of busy modern lives, our bodies know that we need balance.

We feel it like a quiet craving. It manifests as a creeping sense of unease in the midst of the storm of stuff we deal with daily. And we then read this as fear and anxiety, when it’s simply a need for peace and quiet.

If we ignore that craving for too long it becomes, literally, disease. For example, there’s more than enough research showing how imbalances of vital nutrients, or gut bacteria, in our bodies lead to inflammation and illness.

Our bodies have an innate wisdom, also found in all biological systems, which is simply the continual practice of restoring balance.

This is known as homeostasis, a natural ‘law’ that appears in all biological systems and cellular life. ‘Homois’ (Greek) means ‘like’ (as in ‘similar’) + stasis means state, so the suggestion is that the biological urge is to always return to a similar state. The implication is that this urge to return to homeostasis is simple and basic. In other words, more like an automatic reaction than an intelligent response to circumstances.

However, our bodies are complex systems of 40 trillion cells, situated within the complexities of social systems and the natural world. Ultimately we cannot draw clear lines of distinction between microbes, cells, cultural stories, or the weather.

This makes simplistic mechanistic concepts like homeostasis redundant.

When something has been acted upon, when it has become entangled with whatever else has entered the field, it cannot return to the similar state that it was in before this change. Clearly neither our bodies nor the natural world operate this way. What interrupted balance must now be assimilated or incorporated or transformed. (Even elimination is an act of transformation – energy doesn’t simply ‘disappear’.)

The system will never be the ‘same way’ twice. Like the old adage about not being able to step in the same river. Change is the only constant. There would be no evolution if return to stasis was nature’s basic response in the face of change.

I prefer to think of this natural seeking of balance as dynamic equilibrium.

Homeostasis is a misnomer. Balance is not a place or a state we get to, it’s the ability to sustain the continual movement back and forth between polarities and not get stuck in one side or the other. Our bodies restore balance through the perpetual motion of our heart’s beat, through the constant birth and death of cells.

This natural intelligence within offers a wisdom we can apply to our lives.

 

The Infinity symbol
Dynamic Equilibrium is perfectly expressed in the symbol for ‘infinity’.

 

The concept of homeostasis underpins our belief that health is a ‘state’, a perfect place of ease and wellbeing. But while it’s one that is possible to attain, it’s impossible to maintain!

Simply because of that one constant: change.

Instead, health and wellbeing, ease and balance are found in how we participate in the infinite dance of energy, re-finding centre through continual motion.

This infinite looping also expresses a basic law of how energy is created through a chicken-or-egg dance between electricity and magnetism. The core of the earth is a giant magnet, the rotation of the earth produces electricity – and one cannot happen without the other. The same electricity is foundational to our life. Electrical impulses initiate our first embryonic heartbeat, and underpin the functions of our neurons.

This vital energy of life in our cells, and in the farthest stretches of space is in a dynamic equilibrium. We won’t ever arrive at a state of perfect balance because there isn’t one – so we may as well enjoy the ride!

The pleasures of bodyfulness

3 things I no longer believe about my body

From when I was a teenager until well into my thirties I believed the usual amount of guff we women are fed about our bodies and their general unworthiness. Too fat, too skinny, thighs too big, breasts too small, hair all wrong etc, etc. I’m betting you know this story, because you have one of your own.

Simply enough we learn we are supposed to be worried about our bodies and their general lack of perfection in comparison to some ideal. And then as we get older, it’s time to start worrying about how our bodies are letting us down, as we begin the apparently inevitable decline.

Basically, we’re encouraged from a young age to be at war with our bodies.

And ultimately this means we are at war with ourselves.

We force our bodies into shape with diets and the gym, and eye them in bathroom mirrors with unconcealed disgust!

Yet as a jeweller, the body is my gallery. And the more fascinated I became with the way that bodies and jewels work together (indeed, conspire together – but that’s another story), the more I decided that as a society we just have it all screwy when it comes to attitudes around and about ourselves.

I had an inkling there was something way more mysterious and wondrous about bodies.

And not just the female body which has the ability to actually create a new life (dismissed by the powers-that-be as merely ‘reproduction’). But all bodies, everywhere, of all shapes and sizes and genders.

Curiously, I’ve started to find that the frontiers of science increasingly support my suspicions.

And fundamental beliefs that underpin ideas of our self, and ideas about our health, are being shaken loose and discarded.

It can happen with these 3 small shifts in what we currently believe about bodies.

1. That the body works like a machine.

Humans started building machines, then thought “hey, what a great metaphor for how the body works”. But somewhere along the line the metaphor became the fact and now this meme shapes everything from medicine to physiotherapy and how we train. Then physicians realised that it’s not just fluids being shunted from here to there, and joints grinding away from wear and tear, there’s also lots of electrical activity going on. So now the computer has become the new analogy for body functions.

But despite comparing bodies to things that humans have built, science still cannot fully explain how it works.

We’re only beginning to understand that it’s not a computer, or a mechanism, it’s a living eco-system.

To describe it as mechanical is similar to saying a rain forest is like a machine. Because, we’re more like the rainforest with an extraordinary complexity of things going on in our bodies.

And while all the cells are producing energy and vitality, this is also being translated into emotions, ideas, and dreams.

Scientists have dealt with this complexity that is life by considering all the stuff of mind (visions, language) as separate to the stuff of the body (blood flows, cell divisions), and then confounded themselves with questions such as “how does consciousness arise in the brain?”

Which brings me to the second thing I no longer believe.

2. That the brain is in charge

In fact, the mind is not the brain. Plenty of scientists continually refer to the brain as the mind, and they keep looking in the brain for how consciousness can exist in ‘grey matter’. So far, no success in locating it.
Because they’re looking at consciousness the wrong way.

Neurons that produce the neurotransmitters associated with emotions and thinking are also found in the heart. And in the 2-way communication between heart and brain, the heart sends more information to the brain than comes back in the other direction.

We humans love hierarchies. It’s a tidy way of organising things to have a simple centralised control. And so we’ve come to believe our brains operate rather like a monarchy, where a single boss tells everyone else what to do.

Aside from all that information our hearts are constantly sending to our brains, there’s plenty of other bodily systems ‘thinking’ for themselves and influencing what the brain does.

You may have heard of ‘the second brain’, the digestive system, with it’s superhighway of nerve cells making judgement calls about whether what we’ve just eaten is useful and nutritious, or needs to be sent off to the garbage. And then there’s the community of microbes in our guts that are actually impacting the thoughts our brains are busy creating.

Our body is not controlled by our brain just because it’s ‘on top’.

While language and thinking are shaped in the brain, everything we know comes through our body and our presence in the world.

Without your body you can’t know anything.

The parts played by all the elements, cells, organs and systems in the body are relevant and equally important.

Think of it like a movie. Even though the director and stars get top billing, there is a plethora of worker bees without whom that movie would never exist. And these people bring their own skills and imagination to creating the whole.

Once we move away from the meme of the singular “I” (or brain) at the centre of things it’s necessary to let go of another belief.

3. That I am an individual entity

There’s a multiplicity of ways in which I am not a single, individual entity held in place by my skin. However the simplest example is found in the ‘human biome’ – the colony of microbes, viruses, macrophages and what-not that live with us, in and on our bodies.

Depending on how you run the stats each one of us humans is only 40% to 10% human*.
The rest are the kind of creatures we’ve been fighting against since Pasteur invented germ theory. (*If we count the red blood cells we’re 40% human. The reason some don’t count them is that red blood cells have no nucleus. That’s a lot of cells being ignored…)

Since most of these trillions of cells aren’t ‘human’, how can you be an individual?

You’re actually a collective. And the story of life is the story of the triumph of the collective.

It was the banding together of those original life-forms, single celled organisms, and their decision to co-operate, which created the more complex life forms and eventually the complex life form that is the human. For example, mitochondria in your DNA are an early bacteria that agreed to help out. They now shape genetic destinies.

Therefore, strictly speaking, ‘self’ is not an ‘I’.  It’s a ‘we’. A confederate of us. A united states of being.

Because there’s the percentage of us that is ‘human’, and then there’s all the microbes that are not ‘us’. But they live with us, inter-dependently. Bringing the outside world inside, the ‘other’ into ‘self’. Basically you and I are composed of multitudes: 10 trillion+ cells, all working together.

 

You’ve heard that “the way you do one thing is the way you do everything”.
In the same way, how you think about one thing (like your body) reflects how you think about everything.

You might consider these little changes of perspective I’m talking about as just mind games.

And yet they have the potential to create a social revolution.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that how you’re trained to hate your body’s imperfections and fear its potential for disease is your own problem, disconnected from the larger story that creates inequality, violence against others and destruction of our environment.

When we recognise that our body is not a machine but an eco-system it erodes the modern idea that we humans can just live in an urban bubble separate from nature. (So no, Stephen Hawking, moving to Mars is not the answer to the environmental mess we’ve made).

The natural world lives inside us as well as out. Our health depends on it’s health.

When we understand that intelligence isn’t located in brain or language, it’s diffused through our whole body, this sets in motion a new meme of co-operation.

A meme with the potential to dissolve old authoritarian thinking currently running the world.

And once we recognise what we consider as ‘self’ is actually a collection of diverse beings not an isolated ‘I’, it allows us to see difference in a new way.

Xenophobia no longer makes sense.

Thus, a few small shifts in how we understand our bodies create ripples that begin to re-weave the defining elements of our current reality.

But you ARE your body. Here’s why.

I’ve heard a few people comment lately, following a period of challenging illness, that in the end they discover they are not their bodies.

They are something more transcendental, more unfettered and free.

I always feel a visceral reaction to statements like this. Maybe it’s the Taurean archetype coming out…
While I get what they are saying – we are a soul that lasts beyond the mortal flesh and so forth – to me there is something fundamentally wrong with this attitude.

Think I’m being a materialist here? Maybe I am, just not in the way you are imagining it…

It’s in moments of illness and suffering that we get to feel completely alone.

And we mistakenly think that being ‘trapped’ in an individual body is the reason we are alone, because we really crave the connection, the sense of belonging, the feeling of oneness with a divine source that we know is the cure for any dis-ease.

I say ‘mistakenly think’ because this is a social training. It sneaks in as we are learning how to speak, and as we grow older it becomes more and more the way we think about ourselves – isolated entities, separated into our own individual bodies.

While this appears to be true on the surface (according to visual logic), it’s patently not true on any kind of fundamental level. Molecules, cells, the colonies of bacteria and parasites in our bellies and on our skin, all ensure we are always multiples, never singular.

Each of our cells is a tiny intelligent system, banding together with every other cell to create an “I”.

This apparently singular body is actually composed of trillions.

And do we end at the edges of our skin? It’s a big question, just the kind I like to get lost in.
But don’t worry – I’ll stick to the point.

Which, succinctly, is that when we blithely mouth the cliché ‘you are not your body’ we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater, exacerbating, even perpetuating the split between body and mind, body and spirit.
It’s a dangerous attitude. And sooo old school.

If you’re having a hate relationship with your body – stop!

If you think you have to control your body – stop!

In fact, you are your body, and your body is also so much more than what you think it is.

Your body is a vehicle for soul, sure. But it’s not like getting in your car & driving somewhere.

Our soul (and mind, for those who feel a little uncomfortable with soul stuff) completely permeates our body.
It lives in every cell & molecule. Yep, mind also lives in the body. It doesn’t depart until you die, when everything breaks down & recycles into new form.

When people say “I realise I am not my body” what they are really trying to say is:
‘I realise I am not the body that has been proscribed by medicine, and materialism, and prudish Christians…”.

And what they have actually realised is that they are not what is represented by the concept of ‘body’.

This is the difference between the representation (what we think it is: the concept of ‘body’), and the reality – what is real, what exists despite and outside of the understandings given to us by society, by medicine, or by spiritual systems.

So the problem is not our bodies, per se, the problem is what we think our bodies are…

Because whether we think that the body is the limits of the self, or whether we think that our bodies trap us in a world of matter and separate us from spirit, these are simply ideas we have about bodies.
This holds true whether we’re talking the ideas that science has about bodies, or what spiritual disciplines tell us about bodies.

When we say “I am not my body” we are really trying to escape the constrictions and limitations in our own thinking.

May as well say “I am not my mind”.

So, if you think your body is a dumb lump of flesh, that’s just a concept you learnt somewhere. It ain’t the truth.

We wouldn’t even be able to have a concept about a divine life, or a dull life, without our body.
Any inspiration, or pleasure, any intelligence of any kind comes through perception.
This is the ability of your brilliant physical form to pick up transmissions and translate them from the imperceptible to the tangible.

Beauty, joy, love, all are found in form. And only possible by living it.

The physical body does not make us separate from the great divine web of life – it is our ticket to this glorious event.

Don’t try to get out of your body – try to escape your narrow concept of self.

Your mind is actually your problem, not your body.