This is Part 2 of a series about the “lizard brain” – made up of the oldest parts of the human brain, (Please see Part 1 of this Series for a note about my use of the term, “lizard brain.”)
The lizard brain co-exists with our more recently evolved brain regions and can cause all kinds of havoc if we don’t understand how to make good use of it.
To summarize what we learned in Part 1 about the lizard brain, it has three key characteristics that greatly influence your efforts to reach your goals or create change in your life:
- It’s obsessed with keeping you safe and comfortable, to the exclusion of all other considerations.
- Its unable to comprehend the consequences that your actions right now may have on your life in the future.
- When threatened or stressed, it’s capable of completely bypassing the more recently evolved, rational parts of your brain,to make rapid decisions without your conscious awareness.
Those 3 characteristics of the lizard brain explain why we repeatedly encounter experiences in which we say we’re going to do something, and then we don’t. Or we say we’re not going to do something, and then we do.
For example, using your modern human brain and planning for food for the future, you might think to yourself, ‘Today I’m going to plant those seedlings.’
You fully intend to do it. But when you get to the end of the day, you notice the seedlings still sitting in their trays, slightly wilted.
Throughout the day, your lizard brain hijacked your modern-human brain with one distraction after another (if you have young children, they undoubtedly helped with the hijacking), and you may not even be sure what you did all day – except that it wasn’t planting seedlings.
The lizard is responsible for all the procrastination and avoidance behaviors we’re so familiar with – overwhelm, being easily distracted, feeling unmotivated, difficulty prioritizing, seeking comfort in inappropriate ways, and many others.
These are not “weaknesses,” so much as strategies that your lizard brain uses to try to keep you safe and comfortable in the present moment.
Almost every piece of writing about the “lizard brain” that I scanned in preparation for writing this, framed the lizard as a villain. A useless, out-of-date waste of grey matter that holds you back and tries to sabotage your every effort at self-improvement and positive change.
The general consensus is that we would be better off without the lizard, but since we’re stuck with it, let’s at least find ways to keep it as quiet as possible.
But the question, ‘How can I resist or suppress the lizard brain?’is futile.
Your lizard is not going anywhere, and the more uncomfortable you make yourself with the modern human mantra of “no pain, no gain,” the harder the lizard will work to bypass the rest of your brain and bring you some comfort.
A more useful question would be, ‘How can I keep my lizard feeling safe enough, and guide it well enough, that I can put its amazing capacities to work in support of my goals?’
Permaculture principles give us clues that the perception of the lizard as a villain is flawed, and sets us up for a lot of unnecessary friction, hard work, and frustration.
Let’s consider these two permaculture principles:
- Work with nature rather than against it.
- The problem, looked at from another angle, can become or provide the solution.
Both these principles suggest ways we can work with the lizard brain to at least mitigate these so-called human weaknesses, or even turn them into strengths.
We know that in our gardens and food forests, it works better to assist rather than oppose natural processes. Harnessing natural forces reduces friction and workload in many ways.
Similarly, when we work with our own nature in any attempt to live a better life, an approach that embraces all aspects of ourselves will always work better than one that tries to suppress or deny some part of ourselves.
Suppressed elements—whether they be pests in the garden or shadows in our psyches—invariably pop up again later, sometimes in other guises, often multiplied or magnified, and always with inconvenient or uncomfortable consequences.
“If you throw nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.”
Bill Mollison suggested that we “…work with, rather than against nature; [use] protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and … look at plants and animals in all their functions…”
We can apply this approach to our own motives and behavior, just as effectively as we can apply it to the plants, animals, and other elements in our gardens.
Things can be experienced either as an advantage or disadvantage, depending on the use made of them.
This principle applies in Permaculture, and it also applies to managing the lizard in your brain.
Here’s a brief list of some of the lizard brain’s “problematic” characteristics, and how they could be seen as strengths.
- The lizard brain is easily distractedbecause it wants short-term gratification, and it will direct your attention to anything that might provide it.
You can make use of this, by deliberately setting up “useful distractions” that prompt you to stay on track, and by minimizing the distractions that pull you off course. (We’ll go into this in more depth, in Part 3 of this Series.)
- The lizard brain is constantly scanning your environment for threats– real and anticipated.
So, whenever you try to start something that the lizard fears will make you uncomfortable, it overwhelms you with details about all the ways it could go terribly wrong. (We’ll get into overwhelm, and strategies for dealing with it, in Part 4 of this series.)
This capacity for rapidly scanning your environment and picking up information that your rational brain misses, can become a strength if you teach the lizard to scan for opportunities instead of threats. (We’ll touch on this in Part 5.)
- The lizard brain will do anything to stay comfortable in the present moment, without regard for the future.
So when you start an uncomfortable new regime, perhaps thinking “no pain, no gain,” the lizard wakes up and smartly moves you away from the pain and back to comfort. (This is why New Year’s Resolutions have an approximate 90% failure rate.)
This can be mitigated by taking small steps – so small that the lizard doesn’t notice any discomfort.
And this “weakness” becomes a strength when your small consistent steps begin to build up some momentum and a sense of satisfaction, because the lizard likes this sense of satisfaction and will start propelling you toward the actions that provide it.
In the rest of this series I’ll share strategies and examples to illustrate the points I just listed. We’ll begin in Part 3, which is all about “designing” distractions to pull you along in the right direction, rather than allowing unplanned distractions to drag you off course.
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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