What do lizards, procrastination, and Permaculture principles have to do with your brain? Part 1
Did you know there’s a lizard in your brain that’s the source of all your resistance to difficult, boring, intimidating or uncomfortable tasks?
And that this lizard can be re-trained, using Permaculture principles and (un)common sense, to help you reach your goals, instead of sabotaging them?
This Series of articles will show you how. Here, in Part 1, I’ll explain the human brain structure in very simple terms. We’ll meet the “lizard brain” i that lives in the base of your skull and find out what makes it tick. By the end of Part One, you’ll understand why procrastination and avoidance are such frustratingly common human behaviors.
In Part 2, we’ll see how Permaculture principles can help you re-cast the role of the lizard from foe to friend, so it help you reach your goals instead of sabotaging them.
And in Parts 3 , 4 and 5 we’ll look at some examples of using Permaculture principles and working with human nature to reach your Permaculture goals, rather than against it (just as we work with rather than against nature in our gardens).
Let’s get started by considering an example of a worthwhile goal, and – procrastination.
Zero food-mile abundance – a worthwhile goal:
We’re all familiar with procrastination. It’s everything we feel and do when our efforts to get stuff done are intercepted by discomfort, doubts, fears, frustrations, mistakes, setbacks…
Some apparently lucky, clever people seem able to bypass most of that stuff, and reach more of their goals, more quickly, than the rest of us do.
What secret tool or principle are they using?
Picture a worthwhile goal. Perhaps creating a vegie garden or small food forest that rains zero food-mile abundance onto you and your friends and neighbors.
Can YOU create something like that?
What if you are just a normal person, with limited time, energy, and finances? Is it possible for you ever to feed your family on ethical, healthy, home-produced food (or whatever your other desires might be)?
Or should you leave it to those other, lucky, clever people?
There is a way to turn the problem into the solution, permaculture style…
When we experience overwhelm, distractions, lack of motivation, and poor prioritization, we call these behaviors and states of mind, “weaknesses,” and we struggle mightily to suppress them.
That’s not unlike calling weeds and pests “nuisances,” and trying to eliminate them with herbicides and pesticides.
But, just as pests and weeds can be seen as useful indicators and sometimes even allies, there are ways to mitigate these so-called human weaknesses, or even to harness them and turn them into strengths.
Just as you can reduce friction and unnecessary labor by working with nature rather than against it in your garden, you can also make progress towards your goals more easily if you know how to work with—rather than against—your own human nature.
You are not defective
Perhaps this will sound familiar:
You tell yourself, ‘Today I’ll start digging the holes for my trees.’
But right when you almost have the shovel in your hand, you feel a burning need to go back inside and open Google ii so you can check the planting spacings one more time.
Sometime later, you become aware that your extended tree-planting research has chewed up your entire digging time. Its Sunday afternoon, and now another week is going to roll around with your trees still unplanted.
If you can relate to that little story, it doesn’t mean you are defective. It means you are a highly evolved and deeply complex human being, and you just need a new approach.
To get to that new approach, you need to understand a few things about how our brains have evolved since our ancestors crawled out of the ocean millions of years ago, and how they work today.
Lizards, squirrels, monkeys and modern humans
As we’ve travelled our evolutionary path from those earliest ocean shores, we haven’t left anything behind. We have it all: a lizard-squirrel-monkey-modern-human brain that is capable of building amazing new things upon an ancient foundation.
Each major phase of brain development that our species went through is still with us, nested (very approximately) one above the other in our skulls.
“Life’s progression can be seen inside your own brain, in [what has been referred to as] the reptilian, paleomammalian and neomammalian levels of development.
Cortical tissues that are relatively recent, complex, conceptualizing, slow and motivationally diffuse sit atop sub-cortical and brainstem structures that are ancient, simplistic, concrete, fast and motivationally intense.”
Rick Hanson PH.D. and Richard Mendius MD, “Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom”
The bold emphasis in the quote above is mine. I want you to take special note of this important point that the older, instinctive structures in your brain are faster and more compelling than the newer, more rational ones.
The important point about our brains
To summarize an incredibly complex topic, the oldest part of your brain (the “reptilian brain” referred to in the quote above) keeps your body working without your conscious involvement and provides basic survival motivations.
Your slightly less ancient “paleomammalian brain” (loosely speaking, this would be the squirrel brain and the monkey brain) regions involve emotions and memory and allow for social bonding, play, and other mammalian characteristics.
And the most recently developed cortex, including the highly evolved pre-frontal cortex in your “neomammalian brain,” or your modern-human brain, allows you to plan for the future, set and achieve goals, rationalize, control your impulses (sometimes), and use language.
All these brain regions work together, and things go best when the slow-and-steady reasoning power in the recently developed areas mediates and regulates the rapid, instinctive, self-preservation powers of the older brain regions.
But—and this is the important point—in moments when you are stressed, distracted, fearful or uncomfortable, the older brain regions can completely bypass the newer ones to make rapid, compelling decisions about your safety or comfort.
The lizard brain
To understand what’s happening when you say, ‘I’m not eating any more of those cookies,’ and then find yourself at the bottom of the empty jar, you must get to know the lizard.
Your lizard brain functions in ways that are—remember, from the quote above?—unbelievably fast (much faster than conscious thought) and motivationally intense.
This ancient, compelling control center can identify and react to discomfort or threat (real or perceived) without allowing time for the rest of the brain to even access the information its basing its decisions on.
In times gone by, this might have given you the split-second advantage you needed to evade saber-toothed tiger attacks.
The lizard in your brain hasn’t changed since saber-toothed tiger attacks became a thing of the past. It’s still on duty, it never stops looking for threats, and if it can’t find any real ones, it makes some up.
That’s why you procrastinate – to avoid the imaginary threats that your lizard brain conjures up.
“The lizard brain is the source of the resistance.”
It’s no use telling the lizard that doing something that feels threatening or uncomfortable right now will be good for you in the future, because it has no idea that there is a future. It cannot grasp anything outside the present moment.
The lizard’s only concern is keeping you alive and comfortable right now.
Tomorrow, you will have to deal with the consequences of poor previous decisions. But hey, that’s in the future, so who cares?
Also in the future…
Also in the future is Part 2 of this series, in which we will make use of Permaculture principles to re-cast the role of the lizard from villain to hero, from obstructive to helpful, or at least to neutral.
“Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom,” by Rick Hanson PH.D. and Richard Mendius MD
i About my use of the term “lizard brain”: reading about these brain regions in my research for this article was fascinating, but also very complex. To avoid burdening you with the complications, in the remainder of this series of articles I’ll make a gross generalization and call the older parts of your brain, your “lizard brain.”
ii Actually I don’t use google anymore. Now, my go-to search engine is ecosia.org – because A, they plant trees, and B, they don’t track me across the internet.
Kate Martignier writes about thinking differently and living sustainably at www.ARealGreenLife.com.
FEATURE PHOTO by Christo Goosen from Pexels.com
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