Monkey brain, lizard brain

Monkey eating ice cream
Photo via nightfall404 on Flickr (CC licence)

Thoughts and feelings get in the way more often than we would like. We don’t often acknowledge the fact, perhaps because we’re too close to the phenomenon to see it for what it is. Let’s say you decide to lose weight. What’s likely to be your biggest obstacle? You’ll almost certainly have urges to eat unhealthy foods, and these will likely become stronger the more you attempt to stick to your diet. In fact, food cravings are one of the main reasons dieters give for failing to stick to their diet. Imagine you have decided to write the next great American novel. What stops you waking up each morning and snatching up a pencil? Procrastination, you say? Well, OK, but why are you procrastinating? The main reasons people give for procrastination are fear of failure and finding the task difficult or boring. Whatever your goal, there’s a fair chance you’ll be thwarted in its pursuit because of thoughts and feelings.

Very few of us are taught to deal with thoughts and feelings skilfully. Yet this is a problem because the way our brains are set up, and the way that we’re taught to regulate our own behaviour as we grow up, mean that for most of us, most of the time, the greatest barrier to success is inside our own heads.

Your brain is not like play-doh. If you were to slice it open (please don’t) you’d notice something obvious, even with an unskilled eye. It seems to be comprised of layers — not like an onion, more like an apple with its core. The old part of our brains (in evolutionary terms) is in the middle, like the core of the apple. This is the part of the brain which first evolved over 315 million years ago. That’s before the lizards and birds went one way, and we mammals went another. Hence, that part of our brain is similar to the brain of a lizard. It isn’t good at planning and strategising. We share ancestors with monkeys and apes much more recently. The outer part of our brains are quite similar to the outer part of a monkey’s brain. Monkeys and apes are much better at planning and strategising than lizards (though not as good as we humans). They’re a bit more cerebral about life. Lizards react. They’re skittish creatures, on the whole, constantly on the lookout for food and predators. Thus, our monkey brain can be in disagreement with our lizard brain. One wants to strategise, the other wants to run mindlessly away from anything that isn’t a warm comfortable rock or a nice juicy meal. OK, this isn’t true in the strictest biological terms, but there’s a hint of biological truth in it, and more importantly the metaphor points us at a fundamental human truth. Each of us has the higher capacity for planning and strategising and figuring out how to get what we want in the future. Each of us also has a lizard brain that seems to deal mainly in emotions. Thus, we often can have thoughts and feelings that are basically in conflict with our goals. Monkey brain says “giving this presentation is part of my path to a better job, more money, and perhaps even a better life” and lizard brain replies, “but it’s SCARY! Other people are LOOKING at us! Aaaaaaaarrrrgghhhh!”

Lizard brain is obsessed with the present and the near future, and is always on the look-out for scary and dangerous things. And we all have a lizard brain.

You can’t just shut lizard brain down. If monkey brain tries to simply block out the fears, the anxieties, and the burning lustful urges of lizard brain, the lizard gets more and more agitated until it gets its way. It’s just as well. Lizard brain is great at pointing out all the dangerous things in our world, and it does a good job of keeping you safe. The real skill lies in striking the proper balance. The psychologically skilful human being pays attention to both lizard brain and monkey brain, listening flexibly to whichever has the most important thing to say.

So how does one do this? There’s no one simple answer. Mindfulness can help. As can some of its component techniques like defusion. I use the word ‘skill’ deliberately. It’s something you learn to do over time. The more you slow down, allow yourself to really experience a negative thought or unpleasant state, the more time monkey brain has to properly assess whether it’s something to be concerned about.

True skill takes time to develop. That said, just by recognising that there are different forces at play, by noticing that your feelings and thoughts can sometimes be in conflict with each other, you’re already half way there.