Our human brains carry within them an ancient legacy, the brainstem and cerebellum, what scientists call “the reptilian brain” since it first appeared in our reptilian ancestors. It regulates automatic processes like heartbeat and digestion. It is concerned with survival, sustenance, and sex. That’s it. It’s impulsive, aggressive, and automatic. It gives no thought to future consequences. On top of our “lizard legacy” (as the speaker put it), our emotional center (limbic system), and analytical neocortex developed much later in our evolutionary history. Today, all three interact to enable us to far exceed our reptilian cousins in our capacity for thought, planning and abstract reasoning.
The problem I see is that, when it comes to decisions about global resource use, the lizards are running the show!! Survive. Grow. Multiply. Strike when opportunity presents itself. No fear. No conscience. Am I talking about a crocodile or a multinational corporation? (no insult to crocs intended)
Don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for the place of reptiles in ecosystems, as well as their exotic beauty. I also appreciate the function of our reptilian brain, and how it connects us to our evolutionary history. I’m glad that I don’t have to think about digesting my lunch or pulling my hand back from a hot stove.
Still, something is not right with the humans! It almost seems upside down to me. Our inner lizard is making all the decisions, and our “higher primate” spends all its energy carrying them out. In the natural world, a reptile’s impulses are held in check by the limits of its environment and the limits of its mental capacity. The crocodiles at the watering hole aren’t designing highly efficient zebra traps that would decimate the zebra population. They are not capable of doing so. Most zebras escape, a few don’t, and the overall system remains in balance.
But what about us? What about reptilian predatory multinationals? Collectively, we need to dethrone our inner lizard and put our higher thinking, abstract reasoning, future planning “higher primate” prefrontal neocortex back in charge. We need to call on the better angels of our nature.
On a personal level, living mindfully means being aware of the impulses of our inner lizards, but not being a slave to them. If I am in a dark alley, I will trust my inner lizard to keep me alert and safe. On the other hand, if I am at a shopping center, I most certainly will NOT hand her the credit cards!
Photo Credit: “private eye” by flickr user atomicjeep at http://www.creativecommons.org/