Taming the Reptilian Brain
Jim Massey, ND, HANP
We find ourselves living in a most tumultuous time of our human civilization. We face a fork in the road, where we can either move forward and work together or we can further separate ourselves from one another and risk possible extinction. Supposedly, we are living in the “Age of Communication,” but are we truly relating to one another in ways that move our human race forward consciously? Understanding that human beings are predatory by nature is essential to better understand who we are and why. My goal in this article is to explain how we can work with our predatory instincts and reptilian mind to create a better and more compassionate way of living that will bring us greater awareness, more happiness, less fear, and a healthier sense of being. This all begins with comprehending the foundation and evolution of the human brain.
I was strongly motivated to write this article after reading the Power of the Herd, by Linda Konanov. Linda was a cofounder of Epona Equestrian Services, which partnered with horses to teach cooperative, non-predatory forms of empowerment, emotional fitness, social intelligence, and authentic community-building. Her book describes how much the reptilian brain impacts our human predatory nature, whereas with horses, their reptilian brain appears to have less control and impact. Why is that? I was curious as to why a horse, despite having a reptilian brain in its head, could be non-predatory. It seemed counterintuitive.
From studying neuroanatomy in medical school, I was aware of how our reptilian brain plays a major role in our thought processes and how similar the human predatory mindset is to our reptilian brain. This motivated me to examine the 3 distinct parts of the brain, how they have evolved, and how that might influence how we move forward in our human evolution. In researching this, I was encouraged and more hopeful for our future.
The Reptilian Brain: Will to Power
The 3 distinct parts of the human brain include the neocortex (the most recently evolved part of the cerebral cortex); the limbic system (the center of our emotions, motivation, and memory, including the hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and cingulate cortex); and the reptilian brain (the most ancient region of the brain). Like the neocortex, the reptilian brain has 2 hemispheres, which may relate functionally to the left and right hemispheres of the neocortex. The reptilian brain is located in the middle of our heads, on the superior section of the spinal cord and the basal ganglia, the diencephalon, and parts of the midbrain. The primary trait generated through the reptilian brain is the drive to establish and defend territory – a most forceful “will to power.” The major characteristics that present themselves in human beings are:
- obsessive-compulsive behavior
- tyrannical conformance to old ways of doing things
- advancing an agenda at all costs
- power over
- obeisance to precedent, as in legal, religious, cultural, and other matters
- personal day-to-day rituals, superstitious acts, and ceremonial reenactments
- all manner of deception
This drive to establish and defend territory goes far beyond a simple patch of land; “will to power” has many meanings as well. It is the separation of our races from one another – the “us versus them” concept – that furthers separatism and promotes ideologies such as racism. All racism is reptilian in origin. The reptilian brain is a powerful force in our human behavior but is well concealed. Remember, lands were most often acquired by force, and the idea of “might is right” is our reptilian brain in action. It is deceptive and hidden from our consciousness, although we are aware of it both intuitively and emotionally. Many of these reptilian characteristics were necessary for basic survival in primitive times, but are not so conducive to living in harmony in today’s world. The reptilian brain helps promote our current cycle of endless wars by advancing a “power over” mentality.
The horse, or equine, non-predatory mindset values relationship over territory. With horses, their honest, sophisticated, and spontaneous interactions allow them to better navigate the paradox of nourishing individual and group consciousness simultaneously. Non-predatory horses prefer to live in herds for both protection and group purpose. Rather than share and peacefully coexist for the greater good, predators, in contrast, are self-centered and seek domination over others. We could certainly use more “horse sense.”
Our predatory instinct originates within the reptilian brain and probably helped us to survive in the prehistoric times of the Stone Age. We are no longer under the threat of being eaten alive by wild animals. However, we now face the threat of human extinction from our fellow human beings who populate industrialized countries that choose to maintain and grow arsenals of weapons of mass destruction that could easily destroy our human race. Being predators and reacting from our reptilian brain no longer serves us in our quest to become more aware beings that work together in creating peace and coexistence with each other.
A Necessary Shift in Awareness
Most everyone I relate to nowadays seems to be feeling more stress, fear, and angst in their lives. Fear is overly present, and it’s played out every night on the television news, the radio, the newspapers, and the internet. Living in fear does not serve our health, well-being, or sanity; instead, it contributes to our dis-ease. We can no longer afford to hold onto this status quo of allowing our reptilian brain and predatory instincts to dominate our lives.
Personally I thought we, as a human species, had moved beyond this distrust, fear, and anxiety we currently find ourselves embroiled in once again. The current politics of separation are based on appealing to those fearful reptilian impulses that keep people from perceiving their conscious self. There is a strong reptilian pull to live in fear, doubt one another, and focus on our differences rather than our similarities. Political ideology is preying on our fears, causing us to focus on the ways we are different rather than how we are all very similar. Lord knows it’s harder to grow than to stay stuck. Changing takes work, while remaining the same is relatively easy because it’s familiar. Awareness is growing, and neither our predatory instincts nor our reptilian brain serves us as it previously might have in allowing the human race to continue to evolve.
On the positive side, there is a quickening of the human vibration that is bringing about a new dawn of human awareness. This quickening may be attributed to the growing size of the neocortex and the shrinking reptilian brain. We are learning from scientific advances that “gut feelings” are no longer considered bogus or delusional. Dr Candace Pert discovered that both the heart and the intestinal tract (gut) generate neuropeptides – molecules that carry emotional information throughout the body. The greater scientific advances we are experiencing can be explained by the expansion and growth of our neocortex, enabling us to have greater awareness. People with horse-sense pay attention and listen to their gut instinct and follow their heart in making decisions. The heart and gut are now considered our second and third brain, respectively, in scientific circles. Over the past century there has been unsurpassed social change that has produced more freedom for more people; however, injustice and discrimination still permeate the world because of this constant feeling of fear and an assumption that we have to be afraid of our fellow human beings. Rather than bringing us together, this kind of thinking is divisive and polarizing.
Albert Einstein remarked that you can’t solve problems with the same level of consciousness that created them. We certainly have created our share of problems; therefore, we obviously need to come from a different awareness to solve them. This requires a change in how we think, respond, and act out in our lives. The reptilian brain doesn’t think; it reacts. Breaking the tendencies of the human psyche begins with disconnecting ourselves from the reptilian brain and the fear that predominates in our thoughts and reactions. The neocortex is involved in higher functions, such as conscious thought, spatial reasoning, sensory perception, and the generation of motor commands. When the reptilian brain is in charge, there is always a new danger to discover and deal with, another fear to worry us, and another war to conquer others and protect our “interests,” thus perpetuating our fear and anxiety.
Taming Reptilian Reactions
We can override these primitive reptilian reactions and tap more into our neocortex. Studies have shown numerous ways of short-circuiting the reptilian brain. This requires a conscious choice, a paradigm shift, and an opening to all that we can become and evolve into. When people seriously look at how their life is working, they may be more open to a different approach. Change can be daunting and it takes real work. As we have well learned from working with patients, it’s not easy to motivate them and help create lifestyle changes, let alone simple dietary alterations. People tend to stay the same unless they are truly motivated, face a life or death situation, or are finally at their wits’ end. Too many people are overwhelmed by the stress and demands of daily living. Many of us can barely keep our lives together, and to consider changing our thinking paradigm can be terrifying. That is why the majority of people settle for mediocrity and remain thinking the same way they always have.
Change is afoot, but we need to give it a hand. Know and believe that we are at the end of this cycle of fear and distrust. It’s always darkest before the dawn and we are at a new beginning for our human race. The tipping point for awareness and positive change is now here. The old ways of separating and instilling fear to control us is not bringing us the peace, happiness, and security we all want to experience. The evolved neocortex brain is far better equipped and more advanced for helping us reach this new state of awareness. The frontal lobe is the most recently evolved section of the neocortex and allows humans to be better problem-solvers and less reactionary while exhibiting a decrease in compulsive behaviors; this leads to greater social acceptance.
The scientific evidence indicates there is a measurable shift within the brain that bodes well for our human race to become more conscious. The increased growth of the neocortex and the frontal lobe is having a significant impact on how much control the shrinking reptilian brain has on our behavior. We are evolving and becoming more conscious, and although we still may not look and act like we’re moving toward enlightenment, we are. Just look at our brain and know our conscious actions are catching up to our brain changes. It will take time, sentient determination, and real work to keep moving ourselves in the mindful direction of awareness and personal evolution.
Cultivating personal growth and greater awareness can begin with simply paying more attention and being in the moment. Breath work can easily transport us into being here now. The downward spiral that induces fear and anxiety can be stopped immediately by simply breathing in for 3-5 seconds through your nose, followed by exhaling 3-5 seconds through your mouth, for as many times as it takes. The more often one practices this technique, the faster those negative and anxious thoughts will end. Meditation, yoga, qigong, running, aerobic exercise, spending time in nature, journaling, or whatever brings you peace and fulfillment are available for you to integrate into your life. Choose one that fits for you. If 7.5 billion people are going to make this human experiment work, there has to be an unprecedented shift in our thought processes.
We have a choice going forward, and it’s our time to truly believe in ourselves. Our brain has evolved to the point of being more capable than ever before to achieve our unlimited potential. We can indeed be the change we want to see. It begins with us accepting the incredible essence we truly are.
Jim Massey, ND, HANP, is an Oregon-licensed naturopathic physician and holds an HANP credential. He graduated from NCNM in 1985. Dr Massey, who is a former US Army officer, started Beautiful Day Natural Foods in 1975 – the first health food store in Durham, NC. In 1986, he cofounded the NC Association of Naturopathic Physicians. From 1994 to 1996, he chaired AANP’s Public Affairs department. Dr Massey has taught clinical nutrition, homeopathy, and mind-body medicine. He and his wife, Karen, founded Mountain Peak Nutritionals in 1996, specializing in “condition specific formulas®” for healthcare professionals. He cofounded the Naturopathic Psychological Collaborative in 2014, and he continues to explore the contributions of spirit, consciousness, and awareness to vital health. He and Karen live in Portland, OR.