• Control your inner lizard

Control your inner lizard

By Marta Tranter, SFM, HR Manager, June 2020

Human brain

Did you know that our brain only represents a small proportion of our total body weight, on average only 2% [9]? Yet, our brain is THE super computer in the true sense of the word! It is the centre of our nervous system, receiving information from our body’s sensory organs and transferring it to our muscles [9]. The structure of the brain is very confusing, for most of us common mortals although even specialists at the forefront of their game still understand a fraction of our brain’s power, engineering and all its many folds and overlapping parts. To help us understand the anatomy of our brain we need to look at the evolution and the processes that created it.

The Triune brain theory

The Triune brain theory has been developed in the 1960’s by Paul McLean and was based on distinguishing three parts of the human brain that have developed through evolution:

  • The oldest part is the reptilian brain, responsible for controlling the body’s basic but vital functions such as breathing, heart rate, balance, body temperature etc. So it is our reptilian brain that tells us if we are hungry or thirsty or cold! This part of the brain is also responsible for all our habits and procedural memory like driving, cycling, playing tennis, the piano or leaving our keys always in the same place when we come home.
  • The limbic brain or the mammalian brain has developed in the first mammals. This part of our brain is responsible for our emotions and the judgments we make, often unconsciously, that drive our behaviours.
  • Finally, the third part of the brain – the neocortex has developed in Primates (the group that contains all the species commonly related to lemurs, monkeys, and apes) and culminated in humans. It is the neocortex that enabled us to develop human language, abstract thinking, imagination, planning and consciousness.

Those three parts of the brain work together via various interconnections that constantly influence one another [4]. Over the years with more and more research made into neuroscience, MacLean’s theory has been disputed and we now know that his approach was very schematic. I guess it was a start at least and it is still used to help us understand how the brain works and controls our behaviours [3].

So, what does it actually all mean?

Have you ever wondered why you sometimes feel sad when nothing sad has actually happened? Imagine someone has just gone past you and your nose picked up on their perfume, reminding you of someone who passed away and you held dear. That is because our mammalian brain processed the smell, released the memory related to the smell and triggered emotion that was relevant to this particular person. The first one to have meddled here is our mammalian brain, who became conscious of the smell and the memory, and then our neocortex associates this with a feeling of sadness [5].

Have you ever been in a scary situation when you felt anxious and stressed and your heart started beating faster? Maybe you have been in a situation when you felt threatened by someone? In such situations, it is usually your mammalian brain triggering the emotion of stress which then activates your reptilian brain to tell your heart to beat faster. Your body behaves differently only for an emotional reason [1].

The neocortex part of the brain can also affect the mammalian brain and trigger an emotional response without anyone physically threatening us. You may be watching a horror movie that scares you. That is your neocortex transferring the abstract, something that doesn’t exist (it’s only a movie!) into our emotional response (fear) which then can also trigger a physical response, for example an increased heartbeat.

But of course we are talking about our brain here and nothing is simple! It can also work in the opposite way and for instance, where our reptilian brain will tell us that we are hungry and affect our neocortex. Have you ever noticed that when you are hungry, you get angry or annoyed very easily or that your judgments are harsher [1]? Now, you know why that is!

What actually happens in times of stress?

Going back to our example of how we behave when facing danger – it is our nervous system that acts automatically and instinctively, without conscious awareness. If we have a lovely and relaxing walk in the forest and suddenly spot a snake in front of us, our reptilian brain will react and switch to survival mode (fight or flight) and activate adrenaline in our body. This process happens instinctively and unconsciously and helps us survive [2].

Our mammalian brain sometimes joins in and a part called the amygdala, emotionally overtakes the processing of information. It does it much quicker than our rational brain and so gets us into the panic mode. Very often that leads us to do something silly or embarrassing or generally make wrong decisions [6]. Sounds familiar?

It would be fine if that only happened in genuine life threatening situations. However, it is often not the case. Our brain behaves the same way when we are faced with non-life threatening situations, like a job interview or delivering presentation in front of a big audience or before a driving test. In all those scenarios our reptilian brain takes over and overrides the ability to think clearly and calmly [6].

How can we control our inner reptile?

Wim Hof, also known as ‘The Iceman’, is one of the most extreme athletes who holds 26 world records and has got an amazing ability to withstand freezing temperatures. He claims that his success is down to a breathing method that he developed and which helps him control his reptilian brain [3] by controlling his nervous system and so the production of adrenaline [10]. Wim Hof’s breathing method helps him get into the deeper parts of the brain that can only be achieved via the long term practice of meditation. He claims that in seven minutes of his breathing technique, he can create the right chemical conditions in the body to control limbic part of your brain [10].

Wim Hof and his techniques may not be easily accessible for everyone but concentrating on deep breathing has been proved to help ease stress and reduce anxiety levels.  It is easy, free and everyone can do it whenever and wherever they want. Deep breathing is all about slowly breathing into your belly with equal time of breathing in and breathing out.  Repeating it a few times immediately helps us calm down in stressful situations as it controls the production of adrenaline. Making those breathing exercises your daily routine will make a huge difference to your well-being [11]. 

So what other resources can we build on and use to help us override our reptile’s instinctive reactions?  Doug Strycharzyck has developed the 4C’s model to help us take a step back and review challenging situations appropriately and plan relevant responses [7]:

  • Challenge – consider how challenging a particular situation actually is? Does it create an opportunity or is it a threat?
  • Commitment – admit honestly how committed you are to dealing with this challenge?
  • Control – assess how much control you actually have over the challenge?
  • Confidence – think creatively about different ways of dealing with this challenge? Who could help you? What resources do you need?

Another way of building resilience and the ability to control your inner reptile, is mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined as  ‘the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever we’re doing in the moment — free from distraction or judgment, and aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them’ [8]. Mindfulness is not a way to deal with stress per say however it is a tool to become aware of how unpleasant emotions and feelings arising as a consequence of a challenging situation, can be. In short, be aware and mindful of what situations can trigger stress for you. That in turn, helps us make more rational choices and helps us deal with those situations, rather than go into an intuitive survival mode [8]. 


1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg6XUYWj-pk

2. https://www.gracepointwellness.org/109-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/article/55760-reptilian-brain-of-survival-and-mammalian-brain

3. https://massivesci.com/articles/lizard-people-reptile-brain-human/

4. https://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_05/d_05_cr/d_05_cr_her/d_05_cr_her.html

5. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/managing-your-memory/201712/don-t-listen-your-lizard-brain

6. https://www.workbrighter.co.uk/stressful-brain-take-control/

7. https://www.workbrighter.co.uk/how-to-build-resilience/

8. https://www.headspace.com/mindfulness

9. https://www.livescience.com/29365-human-brain.html

10. https://www.dragondoor.com/secrets_of_the_iceman_revealed_wim_hof_interview/

11. https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-relief-breathing-techniques#1

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