Busting the Lizard Brain Neuromyth

Busting the Lizard Brain Neuromyth

You’ve likely heard the term Lizard Brain before. This popular idea says you use higher-level thinking and reasoning parts of your neocortex to overpower and quiet the primitive impulses of your lower-level lizard brain. This reptilian vs. rational brain distinction is compelling because it resonates with our everyday human experiences; I reach for a third cookie because my impulsive cravings push me to, even though I know in my executive brain it is not a healthy snack choice. 

 Here is the problem. The Lizard vs. Rational Brain distinction is one of the most widespread pop neuroscience myths (or what we call Neuro Myths ) in science and business communication today. We do not have a lizard brain hiding within us, ready to ignite in a fit of emotions and guide us away from the path of reason. In her wonderful (and highly recommended) new book, 7.5 Lessons about the Brain, Harvard neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, explains: “Bad behavior doesn’t come from ancient unbridled inner beasts. Good behavior is not the result of rationality. And rationality and emotion are not at war, they do not even live in separate parts of the brain.”  

Why has this myth stayed around for so long? The origins of the idea date back to Plato and Greek philosophy, which created a dichotomy between rational reason and irrational emotion. Fast forward to the 1950s when Dr. Paul Mclean created a 3 Brain Model (or Triune Brain) consisting of our lizard, emotional and rational executive brain. The theory quickly took hold and grew in popularity because it matched Darwin’s prevailing ideas about the evolution of human cognition. Carl Sagan later won the Pulitzer Prize in the late 1970s for introducing the lizard brain to the wider public. 

 If the Lizard Brain is a NeuroMyth, then what can we believe? Below are four ways we recommend thinking and talking about the brain based on current science:   

1.    Refer to Complex Brain Networks, not just Three Brains: It is more scientifically valid to refer to the brain using the language of complex, interconnected “networks” (think of computer networks, or even social networks) rather than the “higher” and “lower” parts of the Triune Brain.

2.    It’s About Genetics and Manufacturing: Talking about genetics and reorganization is a more nuanced and accurate way of describing brain development than the simple Triune Brain Model. Our brains are different from rats, dogs and lizards but we all have remarkably similar genetic underpinnings. How COOL.

3.    Survival Instincts as Fast Firing: We know is it extremely useful to slow down, breath, and make note of your emotions and how they feel, rather than acting on them immediately. These important practices to calm your nervous system are still relevant today, even after busting the Lizard Brain myth.

4.    Brains-in-Bodies Adapt to Different Environments: It is still important to regulate our emotions and reactions, but rather than relegating our feelings to a misbehaving reptile brain, pause to consider how well-adapted you are to your current environment. Ask yourself: what might this emotion be telling me that I should take note of? Is this impulse (or intuition) serving me at this moment, in this particular context? Great questions to train yourself to ask throughout the day, NeuroMyth or not. 

The brain concepts highlighted in this piece are a bit messier and perhaps harder to wrap our heads around than what we are used. But they reflect how real neuroscience is much messier and more mysterious than a simple Lizard vs. Rational brain model — a complexity that accurately mirrors our wonderfully intricate, networked brain itself. 

It’s time to move beyond the Lizard Brain myth for all of us, your authors included. Let’s keep the mindfulness but let the lizards have their brains back.

Wendy S. Swire,  Founder & Leader  (DC Neuroleadership Group) and Daisy Banta, Director of Research (DC Neuroleadership Group)