Reptiles First

Written by Julia Menard

Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

In my work, I have often said that we are “animals first.” Sometimes, people interpret that to mean that humans are, therefore, somehow brutish and nasty.

What I mean is that our pre-frontal cortex is a small player in the context of our full brains. We do have language, the ability to plan and the capacity to process complex thought – the capacities of our pre-frontal cortex. However, we also have a limbic part of our brain – which gives us our capacity for emotion and ties us in with all other mammals. We also have the remnants of a reptile brain, with similarities to the brain structures of present-day reptiles.

These other two aspects of our brains, the mammalian and the reptilian, have enabled life to survive in varied forms for millions of years. These aspects of ourselves are not to be discounted even if they don’t speak the language of our neo-cortex.

In fact, the part of our brain that has been with us the longest, evolutionary speaking, is our reptilian brain. So, perhaps I should be saying that we are reptiles first, animals second. Much of what I see in the present politics of the world is the dominance of our reptilian brains, with its propensity to focus on survival, fear, dominance and rigidity.

If we know what we are dealing with, we are better equipped to deal with it. Rick Hanson, a Buddhist psychologist, talks about ways to engage these different parts of our brain. His mantra is “Pet the lizard, feed the mouse, hug the monkey.” Each practice is based on the needs of the different parts of our brains.
Our neo-cortex focuses on connecting with others.
Our limbic system focuses on approaching rewards.
Our reptilian system focuses on avoiding harm.

Hanson would summarize the three drives as: avoiding (reptile), approaching (mammalian) and connecting (primate).

Hanson’s practices are as follows:

Petting our lizard (reptile brain) is about ensuring we feel safe and in this day and age, safety means emotional safety. We need to be reminded that we are safe, that we can breathe, that we can relax.

Feeding our mouse (limbic brain) is about meeting the needs for reward and nourishment. Feeding our mouse is about recognizing where we are successful and fulfilled.

Hugging the monkey (neo-cortex) is about the need to connect so hugging that monkey is about genuinely caring and connecting with others.

Though we like to think of the primate brain as the first one (after all, primate means “first”), it’s actually last. It was the last part to develop, and it’s the last part to receive signals from the spinal cord. It is not the first or primary part of our brain – our reptilian brain is, then the mammalian then the neo-cortex.

So we need to focus on helping people stay present and not kick into their avoidance mode. Safety first, then belonging, then mattering.

How does thinking of humans as reptiles first help us in resolving conflicts?

What do you think?

“Engage life from the responsive mode as much as possible, contain and calm reactive states when they occur, and return to your responsive home base as soon as you can.” … Rick Hanson

About the author

Julia Menard

Have you ever wondered why you can be so calm and rational for your clients, but when it comes to your own life, stress can creep in so easily? That’s the quest I set out on when, after 20 years as a mediator, my own marriage disintegrated. I teamed up with a therapist from Portland, and we wrote a book that captures much of what I’ve learned over the last five years about finding a the calm in the chaos. Hold On To Yourself: How to Stay Cool in Hot Conversations is the result. If you are interested in mindfulness, finding the leader within and engaging the gifts in conflict, then check out my website and sign up for my free monthly newsletter at:

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