Thursday, June 5, 2008
When I say the word “reptile” to you, what pops into your head? Scenes from Jurassic Park? The boa at the zoo? High School biology? Your brain? No, that last one wasn’t a typo. I had a chance last weekend to listen to a talk on the evolutionary psychology of the human brain. Fascinating stuff. The basic concept is that the human brain today is built around older structures that came into being early in the evolutionary process. Imagine a modern city built up on top of an old one. Some old buildings remain, along with the old layout of streets. New structures squeeze in around the old. Cities like London or Rome come to mind. Another analogy might be to imagine an old fashioned mechanical adding machine. Now…build up a state-of-the-art laptop with the (still functioning) adding machine at the center. Get the picture?
Our human brains carry within them an ancient legacy, the brainstem and cerebellum, what scientists call “the reptilian brain” since it first appeared in our reptilian ancestors. It regulates automatic processes like heartbeat and digestion. It is concerned with survival, sustenance, and sex. That’s it. It’s impulsive, aggressive, and automatic. It gives no thought to future consequences. On top of our “lizard legacy” (as the speaker put it), our emotional center (limbic system), and analytical neocortex developed much later in our evolutionary history. Today, all three interact to enable us to far exceed our reptilian cousins in our capacity for thought, planning and abstract reasoning.
The problem I see is that, when it comes to decisions about global resource use, the lizards are running the show!! Survive. Grow. Multiply. Strike when opportunity presents itself. No fear. No conscience. Am I talking about a crocodile or a multinational corporation? (no insult to crocs intended)
Don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for the place of reptiles in ecosystems, as well as their exotic beauty. I also appreciate the function of our reptilian brain, and how it connects us to our evolutionary history. I’m glad that I don’t have to think about digesting my lunch or pulling my hand back from a hot stove.
Still, something is not right with the humans! It almost seems upside down to me. Our inner “lizard” is making all the decisions, and our “higher primate” spends all its energy carrying them out. In the natural world, a reptile’s impulses are held in check by the limits of its environment and the limits of its mental capacity. The crocodiles at the watering hole aren’t designing highly efficient zebra traps that would decimate the zebra population. They are not capable of doing so. Most zebras escape, a few don’t, and the overall system remains in balance.
But what about us? What about reptilian predatory multinationals? Collectively, we need to dethrone our “inner lizard” and put our higher thinking, abstract reasoning, future planning “higher primate” prefrontal neocortex back in charge. We need to call on the better angels of our nature. We need to change our legal structures to constrain predatory corporations, and shift our ideal from a growth economy to a steady-state sustainable economy. We need systemic controls on resource use. We need to stop trying to keep up with the Joneses.
On a personal level, living mindfully means being aware of the impulses of our inner lizards, but not being a slave to them. If I am in a dark alley, I will trust my inner lizard to keep me alert and safe. On the other hand, if I am at a shopping center, I most certainly will NOT hand her the credit cards!
Rebecca Hecking ponders her brain’s functions from her home in northwest Pennsylvania. She likes reptiles in general, and considers green tree pythons to be especially beautiful. When she was in third grade, her class had a pet chameleon. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org