Science was never my best subject in school. Actually, beyond a basic understanding of cells and the ability to identify a few clouds, my attention found itself focused elsewhere. Fortunately for the world, I didn’t end up in the world of medicine.
That said, I’m finding myself more and more interested in what neuroscientist call our “lizard brain” and how it attempts to control our lives.
While I wasn’t paying attention in class, they must have talked about how humans have two brains – a small brain we share with nearly every other creature (lizard brain), and another named our neocortex (new or recently developed brain) that wraps around and fills most of our cranium. While our new (neo) brain feeds our sight, speech and creativity, our lizard brain is focused on only one thing: survival.
Little did I know I was fighting a powerful lizard a great part of my life.
Scientists say it is this lizard brain, the one in charge of instinctively keeping us alive, that feeds our fears of change, speaking to strangers, or even taking a simple risk in life. So powerful, this tiny brain on the end of our spinal stem the size of a few nuts can naturally override the larger, more powerful neocortex brain (where all the fun is happening).
I was so shy as a kid it hurt. Fear gripped me like an iron fist. While I worked hard to keep it hidden, my lizard brain was always there to warn me of danger. Planting seeds of doubt or providing a long list of reasons not to do something are a lizard brain’s specialty. Protecting me from embarrassment or painful failure is what a lizard brain does best.
While one brain might encourage me to try out for a traveling baseball team, my lizard would swoop right in and warn me of the painful embarrassment of not making the team.
While one brain might want to ask a particular girl to a dance, my lizard brain was right there again, protecting me from the pain of being turned down.
And as science supports, my big brain was no match for my little lizard brain.
But learning to slay your lizard brain – or at least get it back under control – is not easy. In fact, there is an entire industry of self-help books built on this very fact.
For me, I one day woke up and decided to take small steps to defeat my lizard brain – one day at a time. Overriding my lizard brain was not easy. I even remember the day I asked my wife out on our first date. I was so nervous I felt like I was going to throw up. And all the while, my lizard brain was planting ugly, uncomfortable scenarios in my mind.
But she said yes and helped change my life.
I believe up until that moment, asking her out on a date was the single largest risk I’d ever taken. And with the result, I gained the courage to continue taking on my lizard brain with increased confidence.
Believe it or not, I am naturally shy. But over time I’ve learned to overcome the fears my pesky little brain feeds to me at every opportunity. I still hear from my lizard brain every day. But now, I recognize and understand him better – and appreciate his primal concern for my safety.
Learning to slay your lizard brain may be the best thing you’ll ever do for yourself.
Woolsey is the publisher of the Times-Georgian. You can read more of his columns at www.leonardwoolsey.com.