Reconcile the Reptile

Tens of thousands of years ago, our ancestors’ lives were very similar to any other animal. They spent most of their time grazing plains looking for food, hunting game, and watching out for things hunting them. When faced with danger, our natural defense mechanism, the limbic system, would send adrenaline to all the most necessary parts of our body so we could do one thing – STAY ALIVE! Most other living creatures on this planet also have this system. Fittingly, the part of the brain that controls the limbic system is commonly known as the reptilian brain.

Now, think for a second about the last lizard you saw. It was probably sitting on a rock somewhere, eyes wide, unmoving except for its breathing. If you’re anything like me and tried to get closer or even catch it, its likely that it ran away from you before you could even make up your mind to do so. This example highlights two interesting concepts – First, there’s no way to reason with the lizard and tell it you are only going to pet it. It just reacts. Second, the lizard responds so quickly that we hardly even have time to get close to it. This is because the reptilian brain, which we share, is specifically designed to get us moving and save our lives. Nothing else.

What is most interesting about this is that we no longer really “need” this brain to survive. Or at least, not nearly as much as our ancestors did. And yet, its still there in each of us – always watching out for danger, listening for overly loud noises and avoiding cliffs at all costs. Unless we really are in a life threatening situation and need to protect ourselves, the reptilian brain doesn’t have much to do. So instead it helps us to protect other things – children, friends, possessions, ego – from danger. It is responsible for the quick hands that catch your wobbling toddler and reminds you to keep your eyes on your wallet in a dangerous part of town. It’s always there watching out for us, which seems like a great thing. But what many of us often don’t realize is how overprotective it actually is.

Have you ever thought about starting something new, a project or company, only to talk yourself out of it before you start? Right now I’m in the process of building a company from the ground up and let me tell you, this happens almost everyday for me. But recently after watching this TED talk by Seth Godin, I realized that it wasn’t really “me” talking myself out those things. It was the reptilian brain watching out for me – steering me away from potential danger. “No Jeremy, you don’t need to learn how to use that new program. It will probably be too difficult and take too much time.” But, what the reptilian brain calls “danger” is really just risk. And if risk is a situation where it is possible to fail, then the reptilian brain only knows one way to help us – convince us to stop taking risks. For our ancestors, risk meant life or death. Today, risk means success or failure. So what is there to do?

THE TAKEAWAY: At first, I was a little angry at my reptile. I mean, how could it do that to me? Constantly knocking me down when I was so close to succeeding. Encouraging me to stay in my comfort zone where it could keep me safe. Well, now that I’ve wised up a bit, I’m not going to take it anymore. My reptile and I sat down recently to have a little talk, we laid everything out on the table and now, we understand each other quite well. He knows that I only need him to help with matters of life and death and that I can handle something as harmless as a little failure on my own. Have you and your reptile talked lately? If not, maybe it’s time you do. Trust me, in the end it will be less work for him anyway.


2 thoughts on “Reconcile the Reptile

  1. I liked the concept or label for associating our brain function for survival as something that is reptilian. However, that is a huge leap to say that we have anything to do with reptiles or that we evolved from them. It’s just hard for me to connect the dots on a concept when the first dot is plucked out of thin air and that the whole theory starts off on a “ghost’ dot and the whole theory’s structural weight is supported by a vapor.
    It’s like saying i used to be a frog until a princess kissed me and then i turned into a human. But i still remember my frog instincts and still intuitively run and hide from potential great opportunities to kiss more princess ladies on the lips. No really, i really used to be a frog until …poof… i got lucky and this super cute princess kissed me smack on the lips. Then the following happened and i learned to be a human after millions and millions of years, and by the way – at the exact same moment, on the other side of the forest a prince kissed a girl frog and she became a woman so that we could get together and populate this world.
    So the first part is really hard to accept, but i liked the video and liked how you ended by stating that you have to embrace risk and start the process of facing your fear and shipping your ideas long after the decision is made. My risk doesn’t look like a frog, it just looks like fear of change or fear of failure, and sometimes fear of success. But i actually like all of those fears because it points me in the direction i need to go. Feared things First is where i need to go and when most people run from fear, i like to throw myself over that wall!

    • I understand what you’re saying here Alex, and I respect your beliefs regarding where we came from. But I think you missed the point of what I’m saying. In neurology, the nickname for the survival part of our brain is the “reptilian brain.” I wasn’t making the point that we share that part directly, although it is my personal opinion that we share common ancestry. Rather, I was simply using the aforementioned nickname to make a play on words that would hopefully encourage people to question their survival instincts in certain non-deadly risky situations.

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