Have you ever bought something on an impulse, and regretted it later? Or said something to somebody which you regretted, already a minute later? Well, I know I have (like a lot!), and probably you have too. In this article about the reptilian brain, you will learn why this happens to all of us. And furthermore, by understanding your lizard brain, and by learning the 5 reptilian brain hacks I will provide you, you will be able to take back control over your reptilian brain, and ultimately over your life! So, please read on, if you want to learn to beat your reptile brain:
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What is your Reptilian Brain all about?
You probably already have heard that your brain consists of three totally different parts. There is your Reptilian Brain, the oldest part from an evolution perspective, the Limbic Brain and the Neocortex. The latter is the newest part from an evolutionary perspective. Together these three brains are called the Triune Brain Model, a term coined by Dr. Paul D. MacLean.
The Reptilian Brain is the part of your brain which deals with basic bodily functions such as pumping your heart, breathing of the lungs, and the regulation of all chemical processes going on in your body. The reptilian brain evolved to serve your genes by driving fundamental needs such as feeding, survival, mating, and self-maintenance.
As you can see, the reptilian brain is responsible for the very basic functionality of you as an “animal”. Therefore, the reptilian brain is said to be very primitive and animalistic. Hence, the name of this part of your brain, the reptilian brain, because it closely resembles the brain of reptiles such as lizards. The lizard brain is another synonym for the reptilian brain.
The reptilian brain is part of your subconscious mind, and its primary role is to make sure you stay alive and spread your genes. Therefore, like reptiles, it shows no mercy. You either dominate the others, or you will be dominated by the others.
The reptilian brain does not learn from its mistakes. It only understands images, and it does not understand language. Your lizard brain only has a limited set of behavioral responses which can be triggered by certain external triggers.
Examples of these basic behavioral responses are: dominance, aggression, seeking a mate, worship, sex, fear, rigidity, compulsiveness, obsessiveness, greed, and submission. If you would not have your neocortex and limbic system, then you would be like a wild animal defending your territory.
The reptilian brain only understands visual images while the optic nerve is directly connected to your reptilian brain. That’s why visualization techniques work so well because this is the best way to influence your reptilian brain.
If you want to have more focus in your life, then the reptilian brain is your best friend. The reptilian brain is the gate-keeper for the attention of the rest of your brain. So, only if your reptilian brain determines that something is worth paying attention to, your subconscious mind, and your conscious mind will have a chance to pay attention as well. Again, this is why visualization techniques work so well because they help you channel your mental energy and attention towards your goals.
What type of triggers does your Reptilian Brain has?
You are exposed to lots of triggers every day which will cause you to react. Some of those triggers are firing off part of your neocortex, others are firing off parts of your limbic brain and other triggers are firing off parts of your reptilian brain. To get more understanding of what your reptilian brain is, and how your reptile brain operates, I would like to discuss the triggers which are firing off behavioral responses of your lizard brain.
If you will start to recognize the triggers which trigger your reptilian brain, then you will also be more in control of what you will do with these triggers. If you better understand the triggers which your reptilian brain is exposed to, then you will better understand your own behavior. So, instead of subconsciously following the primal emotions of your reptilian brain, you will be more conscious about what is going on inside you and that will give you a chance to create a pattern interrupt. This means that you will get more control over your lizard brain, and thus more control over your life.
All of these triggers can result in irrational behavior. When one of these triggers are fired off, the reptilian brain dominates the neocortex resulting in subconscious irrational behavior. The stronger the trigger will be, the more a person’s character will change towards primal behavior. However, after this first and very strong impulse of the reptilian brain, the triggered behavior may later be down-regulated or amplified by the two other brains you have: the neocortex and the limbic system aka the thinking brain and the emotional brain. That’s why it is a good practice when you have strong desire to do something, to postpone your reaction by counting until 10 for example, or even better, by have a night’s sleep over it.
Reptilian brain trigger: threat to safety
As soon as you feel threatened, this acts as a trigger for your reptilian brain to activate your defense mode. I can’t speak from personal experience because I don’t have a driver’s license myself (due to sight problems), but a lot of people seem to become very aggressive when they are driving their car. This is called road rage. But why are “normal” people overreacting when they are driving their car? Well, that’s because when one of their fellow car drivers are maneuvering very suddenly, they suddenly feel threatened. And this feeling of threat is what immediately activates their lizard brain. It feels like an invasion of their personal space. Without thinking logically about it, they react aggressively by beeping their horn or swearing. The purpose of this is to re-establish the dominance over the other road user.
So, your reptilian brain is triggered as soon as you feel threatened. The big question is of course: Is this feeling corresponding to a real threat or not? Should you really feel threatened as soon as something unexpected is happening? Or are there hundreds of logical explanations why another driver is taking a certain maneuver while none of them has something to do with a threat towards you?
The way to get control over this part of your lizard brain, is to think in advance about what can happen in a particular context. So, in this example the context is driving your car on the highway. What type of things can happen in that context which would trigger normally your reptilian brain with a feeling of threat? Make a list with all the possible threats. Now, evaluate with your logical thinking, if each of these threats are in fact a real danger for you. In most cases the answer will be, that it will be of no danger for you at all. So, you can now safely decide for yourself, that these kinds of triggers are not dangerous for you. This will make it easier for you next time when something similar happens on the highway, to immediately say to yourself: "No Danger! No Danger!!” And this will calm down your reptile brain.
Reptilian brain trigger: Sex
Sex sells as all sales people in the world know. But why is that, do you think? Well, sex sells because it stimulates our reptilian brain! I remember my father when he was researching his next car he wanted to buy. All those glossy magazines with the new car and beautiful models standing next to each car. My father always said: “When I buy this car, do I get this model too?”
Sex triggers have the ability to stimulate the following primal emotions in your reptile brain:
- wanting to seek a mate
So, placing a beautiful model next to a car, will automatically make the car more attractive, because it appeals to your reptilian brain. Sex is a very powerful trigger, and it will often bypass your critical thinking thereby making you more receptive to persuasion. And even when you are aware of it, like in my father’s case, you are still persuaded whether you like it or not. And that’s because your lizard brain is already influenced by the sex trigger and your critical thinking brain can nothing do about it.This does not mean that you are always helpless when influenced by sex trigger of course. The first step to guard yourself against unwanted persuasion is acknowledging the existence and how it works. After that, you can think in advance about future situations where you will be influenced by the sex trigger and then weapon yourself against it.
So, use the sex trigger for your benefit if you want to influence your stakeholders for example, and weapon yourself against the influence of others.
Reptilian brain trigger: Money, Power, and Social Status
Greed and aggression are a few of the primal emotions of the reptilian brain. These are triggered by the prospect of gaining or losing money, power, or social status. These triggers are interconnected because money is often used to gain power and social status, and power is also used to obtain social status. At the same time, with the social status, you have more ability to gain power and money.
So, as soon as you see an ad on how you can save big money or get rich quick, your reptilian brain will be triggered causing you to react irrationally and in a more automatic, subconscious way. That’s why it is wise to create a pattern interrupt for yourself upfront. Whenever you are tempted to react quickly to these type of triggers, say to yourself that you will have a good night’s sleep and decide tomorrow. This will calm down your reptilian brain, and this will give your neocortex or critical thinking the chance to step in the process. The result of this, is most of the time, that you will think that it is wise not to buy the crap you first thought was fantastic.
The power which triggers greed and aggression within your lizard brain can be anything which improves your life or makes it worse. Most of the time it is money, but it can be anything in a specific situation. For example, if you are in the office attached to a specific spot where you work every day, and you are on the verge of losing that spot, then this will also trigger the primal emotions of greed and aggression within your reptilian brain. And again, it is wise to postpone your reaction until the next day.
Reptilian brain trigger: Self-Image
Other primal emotions of the reptilian brain, are self-maintenance, dominance, obsession, and compulsion. These can be stimulated by everything that has the prospect of gaining or losing the attractiveness of your looks. So, if you see a TV ad for an abdominal trainer, then this will trigger your reptile brain. Have you seen the movie Confessions of a Shopaholic? The main character in this movie was addicted to buying clothes, shoes and so on because this was stimulating her reptilian brain with a good feeling about the way she looked. Although it was a false feeling, of course, that is something the reptile brain doesn’t know. The models showing all those beautiful clothes, are beautiful themselves thus stipulating the fact that you as a customer look inadequate. This stimulates the lizard brain, of course, to want to be attractive, resulting in an obsessive buying behavior.
Reptilian brain trigger: Food
Food is one of those necessities you need every day. Without it, your genes will be unable to replicate, and your body will die. While your reptilian brain evolved to keep your body alive and to serve the needs of your genes, food is a very powerful trigger. This trigger generates a strong response from your reptilian brain. Food can trigger greed, aggression, obsessive and compulsive behavioral responses, by your reptilian brain. Especially when food is scarce, this trigger of the lizard brain will cause us to behave like animals, which only concern is to survive.
6 Powerful Reptilian Brain hacks to get More Control over your life
Knowing how the reptilian brain operates, gives you the insight to become better in managing your reptile brain. Here are some ways in which you can use the power of the lizard brain:
1) Appeal to the pain points of the reptilian brain
The reptilian brain is concerned with avoiding pain as a means to the survival of the body and the genes. Much more than it is with gaining pleasure. So, if you want to activate the reptilian brain, appealing to pain is more effective than appealing to pleasure. This applies when you want to trigger your reptilian brain or the reptilian brain of your stakeholders. Start with talking about the pain you want to avoid first, to grab the attention of the reptilian brain. If you have the attention, then you can start talking about the benefits of the solution you are presenting.
So, next time when you need to give a presentation of a project proposal for a group of stakeholders, first ask yourself what the pain points are they want to avoid. As soon as you have their attention, present how your value proposition will be alleviating that pain.
If I order a pizza with our local Domino’s pizza service, then since a year or so, I can follow exactly when the pizza will be delivered at my door, via their online ordering system. I was curious why Domino’s bothered to give me all that information, but it turned out that this was designed to alleviate the pain of most customers (not me by the way) that they didn’t know when the pizza would arrive. Alleviating this pain happened to give sales a tremendous boost for Domino’s!
2) Appeal to the self-centered nature of the reptilian brain
As said, the reptilian brain is strictly responsible for its survival. It is by nature self-centered. You can leverage this by appealing to this function of the lizard brain, next time you speak to one of your stakeholders. Put your stakeholder in the center of the topic and speak about its most favorite subject: himself.
People always want to know “What’s in it for me?”, so make it a habit to make that very clear from the start of your conversation or presentation. Otherwise, if your introduction to the “What’s in it for me” part takes too long, people get bored and distracted and you lose their attention. So, if you use examples in your presentation, make sure that these examples are about your audience. If you use images, make sure that your audience can relate to them.
The best way to get the attention of your audience is to answer the “What’s in it for me” question as quickly as possible, because that will satisfy their reptilian brain.
3) Use Contrast to demonstrate importance
The reptilian brain best understands black and white messages: good or bad, fight or flight, pain or pleasure. So, if you want to appeal to the reptilian brain, use a black and white type of messages. The higher the contrast, the better you come across. You can combine this with the primal pain avoiding behavior of the reptilian brain. If you can present your value proposal as a way to alleviate the pain and contrast this with other solutions, where the pain remains or increases, then you will immediately grab the attention of the reptilian brain of your audience.
You often see Before and After Pictures in ads where they promote all kinds of diet pills. They contrast the painful situation of having an unhealthy body with too much fat with the after situation where you will have a healthy and slim body. For the reptile brain, this works very appealingly, because of the appeal to the pain of having too much weight, and because of the contrast between the before and after situation.
4) Make your value proposition as tangible as possible (aka Show me the money)
While the reptilian brain only understands visual images, and don’t understand words, you have to make your value proposition as tangible as possible when presenting a proposal for a new project, for example. In today’s digital world most of the things we do every day have become sort of invisible. Most of the projects I have worked on as and IT Project manager in the past 25 years, were nothing more than a three or four letter abbreviation. All milestones were invisible, besides some new computer screens. So, how do you sell such projects to higher management? How do you make it visible? After all, we are visible creatures and seeing is believing. One example I used, to make things more visible, is the following. A particular project where a huge team had been working on for almost a year, came to the final phase. In that phase, all customer service agents had to be trained. The training was a one-day training concluded with a final exam for which they had to pass. Everyone who passed the exam got a beautiful certificate with their name on it, signed by two members of the board of directors. And of course, pictures were taken every day of the class that had passed the exam that day. And these pictures were circulated on all the bulletin boards of the company, so that the existence and impact of the project became visible for every employee, including all senior managers. Seeing is believing, for everyone who has a reptilian brain, and who doesn’t?
It is not always possible to make projects very tangible, that’s why most projects rely on dashboards and status reports to make the project visible. But if you can find a creative way to make a project’s value tangible, then you have a huge advantage over other projects which only produce dashboards.
Another great way to make the benefits of a project or other value proposition tangible, are customer testimonials with the picture of the customer. This makes the benefits not only tangible, but it serves also as social proof.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so another great way to make your value proposition tangible, is to either give a demonstration of your product, or if it is a service, to let the customer try the service out for 30 days with a money back guarantee.
All these examples are ways to show the reptilian brains of your customers and important stakeholders that your project is of value for them. As soon as their reptilian brain is convinced, you get the attention you need to also convince the logical thinking brains of your stakeholders. While people are mostly driven by their reptilian brain, this is just an additional detail.
5) Focus on the beginning and the end if you want to have an impact
The reptilian brain is primarily focused on its survival. This means that it will always be very alert to changes to evaluate danger. However, if there are no changes the reptilian brain will conserve its energy and will stop paying attention. This is also related to the concept of hedonic adaptation. So, if you want to make an impact when giving a presentation, bring your key message at the beginning and the end of your presentation. That are the moments that the reptilian brain of your audience will pay attention the most. Preferably, you bring your key message at both the beginning and the end because the reptilian brain also likes repetition. And if you combine this with the first reptilian brain hack, then know that you have to stipulate the pain first and the solution to this pain last, in this key message.
The big question is then of course, what will you tell in the middle of your presentation? Well, if there are important points which need to be mentioned, then you need to wake up the reptilian brain. This is not done by monotonous continuing your presentation of course. No, you need to create a break state, a pattern interrupt, so that the reptilian brain of your audience suddenly becomes alert of a change which is happening. Then it will start to pay attention again.
6) Use Visual metaphors to captivate the reptilian brain of your audience
As said earlier, human beings are visual creatures, because the optic nerve is directly connected to the reptilian brain. Therefore, visual input has the most impact (“A picture can say more than a thousand words”). This is also a survival mechanism of the reptilian brain: it reacts far more quickly to visual input than any other input. So, now you know why a PowerPoint slide with only bullet points is destroying the attention of your audience, while a slide with just one picture can captivate the attention of your audience.
So, try at all costs, to use visual representations of your key messages in what you are presenting. As said earlier, if it would be a tangible visual than it is even more powerful. But in some cases, you are not able to use visuals. For example, when you speak to someone on the phone. Or when you have suddenly a meeting for which you could not prepare. Even in these cases, it is possible to involve the visual brain. Just picture the image in words. Start by saying: “Picture this …” and then picture the visual you have in mind.
Conclusion about the reptilian brain
Your reptilian brain is the oldest of the three brains you have. The reptilian brain serves primarily for the survival of your body and genes, and it has a very animalistic way of responding. There are a set of strong triggers that can activate your reptilian brain directly, and when this happens, your neocortex or thinking brain will be bypassed resulting in irrational behavior. Exposure to such a trigger can even completely change your personality.
You either control your reptilian brain, or you are controlled by your reptilian brain.
So, every time you behave irrationally you can blame your reptilian brain! Okay, just kidding because the better way is to recognize the triggers of your reptilian brain and take control of.The best way to manage your reptilian brain is to recognize the triggers it is affected by, and to postpone your reaction, preferably until the next day.
Please leave a comment below by telling us how you are managing your reptilian brain.
Which of the 6 Reptilian Brain Hacks do you use and what are your experiences with it?
Thank you already in advance for sharing your thoughts and insights!