Saturday, December 17, 2011


Hawaiian Lizard, Courtesy of R. Weidner

I actually developed a theory about our lizard brain long before I just recently happened upon the term. I’ve traveled rather consistently all of my life during my career and personal time off. And I slowly began to observe that I never got a good night’s sleep on that first night in a strange environment away from home. Subsequent nights were no problem and I began to analyze just why that was happening to me. I finally realized that it was simply a matter of becoming familiar and secure with my new surroundings, like the compressor kicking in on a small refrigerator or window unit in my foreign room. It occurred to me that this particular trait was probably all about the fact that this DNA had survived over eons of human development to be part of my being. My lineage continued to propagate because they were alert to the rustling of a saber tooth tiger at the mouth of the new cave where they had decided to spend a few nights during the hunt for food. Once they were assured that an area was safe and secure, they got a good night’s sleep. The saber tooth tiger took care of those that didn’t respond by removing them from the gene pool! It just so happens that those instincts are still alive and well in my being and my modern saber tooth tigers have morphed into such things as circulating fan motors and life’s challenges. Once I finally realized what was happening to me, I was able to easily return to REM sleep even though the lizard brain at the base of my evolutionary brain’s structure was still functioning.

I learned that this lizard brain was at work during other aspects of my life to discharge its ancient duties of fight, flight or freeze, challenge the use of edible food and stimulate the drive to propagate the species. I finally learned to understand that this fear mechanism was trying to help me if necessary, and I could silence it by acknowledging it, focusing on my goal and then focusing on its execution. I even trained myself to redirect all that nervous energy to stimulate my brain’s energy and attention to the task at hand. And I can now recall a few occasions where lizard brain’s auto pilot actually saved my life or quickly alerted me to difficult challenges when contemporary saber tooth tigers threatened me. It turns out that our lizard brain is also functioning behind the scenes using chemical and electrical signals to regulate involuntary breathing, heart beats, growth, etc. while our higher brain functioning concentrates on those thinking and spiritual assignments that separate us human beings from the lizards and dogs walking among us.

Some neuroscientists have proposed that our human brains are the evolutionary result of successive higher levels of order for lizards (reptilian complex), dogs (limbic system) and humans (neocortex) within our skulls that grew on top of one another. The lizard brain handles basic instincts and bodily functions. Then the mammals emerged with the addition of a more complex layer of brain with emotions and emotion-based memory. Finally, the human being layer completed the masterpiece with its ability for poetry, art, language, projecting the future and reason. Consequently, human behavior can be at odds at times when our emotions conflict with our reason--like when we’re tempted to go for some dubious pleasurable activity when our reason tells us that it is ultimately not good for us. We may still be evolving to fully achieve a harmonious integration. Meditation and prayer can assist. And frankly, I have no problem believing that all of this occurred in one or two days or 150,000,000 years, as the human brain is one of the most complex objects in the universe and we are only beginning to understand it. As the psalmist praises, we are fearfully and wonderfully made!

The American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed his now famous triangular Hierarchy of Needs in 1943 describing the stages of growth and motivation in humans. The base of the needs triangle is composed of the lizard brain physiological needs and then our needs move up the ladder for safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Some have even proposed adding spiritual needs at the very pinnacle of the pyramid, but I believe spiritual needs can be attained at every level and may be even more important if a person is rooted in poverty at the lowest level. As you can see, they mirror the human brain’s development and it’s been proposed that if we do not consciously move beyond the early stages of security and survival, we will not effectively continue our journey of discovering our true potential self and spiritual growth. I’m not so sure a triangle is the ultimate shape to illustrate this point however. Years ago I discovered that sometimes a concept such as this can best be illustrated by concentric circles moving out like the ripples generated when a stone is tossed into water. And at the very center of this word picture is our spiritual growth which expands as we move out into the concentric circles. And it goes hand in hand with my observation of the circles of life that are integral to our existence. In the twelfth chapter of Luke, Jesus tells us “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes…But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The bottom line is to be aware that we human beings have been endowed with an evolved brain that is now capable of contemplating our future, where we have the capacity to move beyond basic needs and fear and to understand the temporal nature of this life so that we can evolve into the next.

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