Your Reptilian Brain (or Lizard Brain) is one of the most important organs in your body.
Most people don't even know of the existence of this vital organ.
Let alone the fact that they are aware that ...
The Reptilian Brain Controls
Time for you to become aware of the enormous power of this lizard brain and how to use it for your own benefits.
Have you ever bought something on an impulse, and regretted it later?
Or have you 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.
Furthermore, by understanding your lizard brain, and by learning the 6 reptilian brain hacks...
...you will be able to take back control over your lizard brain...
...you will take back control over your life...
...you will know how to get the attention of other people when you want it...
...you will be able to motivate yourself when you need it...
...you will see more opportunities even when others don't see them.
Let's dive in!
What is the Triune Brain theory?
According to psychologist Paul MacLean the Triune Brain theory means that the human brain actually consists of three separate brains. Each of them has its own function and role within the human brain. Those three brains are not only different from each other... they even compete with each other!
What are the three types of brains?
As you can see in this picture of the Triune Brain, there are 3 distinct brain regions:
- The oldest brain region, the primal brain or basal ganglia, is most often called the reptilian brain because it resembles the brain of ... you guessed it right ... reptiles.
- The second brain region, is the limbic brain. The limbic brain is not as old as the primal brain.
It is also called the paleomammalian brain. While it consists of the hypothalamus, amygdala and the hippocampus, this part of the mammalian brain is responsible for subconscious emotions such as fear, joy, fighting and sexual behaviour.
- The youngest part of the brain, is the mammalian neocortex.
The mammalian cortex is a very important part of the mammalian brain because it distinguishes humans from animals. The neomammalian brain enable humans to speak and think. Instead of only instinctive reactions, we now have the ability control our fight or flight response.
By the way... the whole idea of you having only three brain parts (aka the Triune Brain theory of dr. Maclean) has already evolved in brain science as you can read here. The human brain is far more complex.
Having said that...
When it comes to human behaviour, changing your habits for the better, inspiring yourself or others to change or to take action... Maclean's model is still very relevant. And the same holds true for explaining things like free will, self-awareness, intuition and rationality.
Brain morphology of human beings
Brain morphology refers to the structure of the brain. This includes the size and shape of the brain, the number of neurons in the brain, and the connections between the neurons.
The human brain consists of billions of nerve cells called neurons. Neurons communicate with other neurons using electrical signals. The brain also contains specialized cells called glial cells. Glial cells provide support for the neurons.
The brain's shape varies among individuals. In general, the brain is shaped like a sphere. The surface area of the brain is about 1.8 square meters. The volume of the brain is about 1150 cubic centimeters.
The number of neurons in the human brain is estimated to be about 100 billion. Each neuron has about 10,000 branches called dendrites. Dendrites receive information from other neurons.
Neurons connect with each other via synapses. Synapses are gaps between neurons. Information travels along the axon of one neuron and then travels across the synapse to another neuron.
Evidence from evolutionary biology points to the fact that humans can speak while animals don't, is due to the cerebral cortex that humans have. The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of the brain. It controls all our senses and motor skills. It is made up of billions of nerve cells called neurons. These neurons connect with each other through synapses.
The prefrontal cortex
The prefrontal cortex, also called the neo-cortex, is the part of the brain that can get the other parts to work together for whatever goal you have. If you can harness the power of it, it's the key to a bright future.
The Neo-Cortex consists of 4 parts called lobe: frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and occipital lobe.
The reptilian complex
The reptilian complex is a part of the human brain that controls emotions and human behavior. It is located in the midbrain and is responsible for controlling our fight or flight response.
The mammalian cortex is the part of the brain that controls movement. It is made up of gray matter. Gray matter is made up of nerve cells and glial cells. Glial cells help support the neurons.
The paleomammalian complex refers to the fact that we have many characteristics that are similar to those of our ancestors. For example, we have hair, teeth, and sweat glands. We also have a brain that is very similar to that of our ancestors.
The brain stem is the part of the brain that controls breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and other vital functions. It is located between the cerebrum and the cerebellum.
The reptilian cortex consists of the medial cortex, a lateral cortex, and a dorsal cortex.
The medial cortex is the part of the brain that controls our emotions. It is made up of three different areas. The anterior cingulate gyrus, the amygdala, and the orbitofrontal cortex.
The lateral cortex is the part of our brains that control our sensory perception. It is made up by two parts: the parietal lobe and occipital lobes.
The dorsal cortex is the part of brain that controls our body movements. It is made up mainly of the premotor cortex and primary somatosensory cortex.
What is your Reptilian Brain?
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 mind 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 lizard 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 mind, 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 lizard 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 lizard 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 lizard brain is the gate-keeper for the attention of the rest of your mind. 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.
Why do they call it the Reptilian Brain or the Lizard Brain?
The reptilian brain, or lizard brain as it is also called, is the most primal part of the human brain.
It is in charge of feeding, fighting, fleeing and reproduction. In this way the functioning of this part of our mind resembles the forebrain of reptiles and other animals. This is why this part of our mind is called the reptilian brain.
Another reason for giving it this name, is to indicate the state of evolution. This part of our mind is already formed 20 million years ago. This was a period on planet earth where there were very little human beings. The vast population of our planet consisted of reptiles and other animals.
Why do we have a Reptilian Brain?
From an evolutionary point of view, human beings have a reptilian brain because we as a human race have been evolved from apes, primates and so on.
From a neuranatomy point of view, we have a reptilian brain because we need an organ to maintain and preserve our body and DNA.
This leads to the following 3 core functions of the Reptilian Brain:
The 3 Functions of the Reptilian Brain
The Reptilian Brain dominates the body’s physical need for calories.
It also controls other instinctual needs.
The Reptilian Brain determines our subconscious decisions. It makes us find out the most cost-effective solution to our behaviors.
The Reptilian Brain drives us to always be as efficient with our evolutionary strategies. This means moving away from pain and moving towards pleasure.
What does the reptilian brain control?
The reptilian brain controls the body's vital functions. It controls your breathing, your heart rate, body temperature, how the organs in your body function and so on. It is very reliable... it will always serve your body in the best possible way. However, it is also somewhat rigid and compulsive.
This part of your mind also controls your focus. Everything you see, hear, feel, taste or smell runs first through your reptilian brain. If it thinks something is not worth focusing on, it is neglected. Your mental filters are controlled by this part of your mind. This is also why you will want to use mental contrasting if you want to make sure you achieve your goals.
If you want to focus better, have more concentration, be less distracted...
your reptilian brain really is your best friend!
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 lizard 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 lizard 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 lizard 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 lizard 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 lizard 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.
How do you trigger a man's reptilian brain?
Humans are rare creatures. Because of our cognitive abilities we tend to "think" that we take our decisions consciously. Instead, our reptile brain drives most of our decisions. That's because it determines what you will focus on in the first place.
If you want to motivate yourself, or others, or you want to sell your ideas and convince others to take action...
you will need to know how you trigger a man's reptilian brain.
Well, here are 6 specific ways to accomplish just that:
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 lizard 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 lizard 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 lizard 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 lizard 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.
If you want to make sure that you achieve your goals, you will want to use mental contrasting so that you will have your reptilian brain in your corner.
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 lizard 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 lizard 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 lizard 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 lizard 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 lizard 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.
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 lizard 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 lizard 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!