It doesn’t matter how old you are. Your brain is 310 million years old.
That’s when lizards first appeared. Give or take 10 million years.
The brain of a lizard isn’t too complex.
It just keeps it alive. All its focus is on survival.
It keeps the lizard breathing. It gets it to seek out food.
If there’s a threat, it has the lizard run away.
So what’s that got to do with you?
You have that lizard brain too.
When creatures evolve, they build on what is already there. Evolution doesn’t start from scratch.
Same goes for your brain.
So your brain has three evolutionary parts: lizard brain, mammal brain, human brain.
Each adds on to what was there before. Your brain is like a Russian doll.
When something scares you and you jump, that’s your lizard brain. It’s doing the job it has been doing for 310 million years.
Mammals came along about 200 million years ago.
Us mammals are different to lizards because we tend to be social animals, often living in packs.
A lizard interacts with the world as a physical phenomenon.
Mammals do that too, because mammal brains are an add-on to the lizard.
But we also interact with each other socially.
It’s not enough for a mammal to understand the physical world. It has to understand the social world too.
So it has an extra part of the brain.
The lizard brain learns to survive the world.
The mammal brain learns to survive the social intricacies of the pack.
Like the lizard brain, it is still focused on your survival. A pack animal who the tribe expels doesn’t last very long.
When, as children, we learned what pleased and displeased our parents, that was our mammal brain.
When we learned what won and lost us friends, that was our mammal brain too.
Once the lizard and mammal brains decide what is safe, they freak out if you go against it. After all, they are both there to help you stay alive.
Check out this drawing of a crater in London.
Even when we know it’s a drawing, like this cyclist we are reluctant to step onto it.
The lizard brain freaks out. It knows that falling down large craters is dangerous.
No matter that you intellectualise it as a drawing, you still have to overcome your lizard brain to step onto it.
It’s the same when you go against your inner mammal.
If the mammal thinks something is dangerous, it will resist as if it were a crater.
This is why we feel resistance when breaking childhood rules.
Personal change often involves breaking them in order to grow. Breaking them allows us to incorporate previously forbidden behaviour. That’s why it can feel scary.
Even when your present day reality is no longer dangerous, the old programming kicks in.
Your mammal brain freaks out, trying to warn you that it is “not safe”.
The person whose mammal brain learned that it was safer not to speak out, now feels anxious each time they need to.
Just as the cyclist feels anxious before stepping onto the drawing of the crater.
Then humans came along.
Our human brains are capable of a load of extra stuff. Logical thought, imagination, the ability to tell stories, and language.
This is added to the monkey brain (lizard plus mammal) that we already had.
In essence, we are split into two.
First, our monkey brain to focus on physical and social survival.
Then our human brain that can reason, imagine the future and generate stories.
This is the part of us that decides that the crater is just a drawing, and steps onto it anyhow.
Our monkey panics, but we soothe it and do it anyway.
As well as soothing our panicked monkey, we can also scare it.
We use our human brain to imagine terrifying futures.
“Hey monkey”, you’ll say, “when we go to the party tomorrow, everyone will hate us and not talk to us.”
Now your monkey is freaking out. The last thing it wants is to be at that party you’ve scared it with. Nice job.
So you end up staying in, even though you really wanted to be there.
Visualise something scary, and your monkey gets scared. Monkeys are like toddlers. Would you show a toddler such a scary movie?
“Hey little one, it’s your first day of nursery tomorrow. All the other kids will hate you and you’ll have no fun.”
Yet we tell our inner monkey things like this all the time. No wonder it gets anxious.
It is sometimes said that we treat our pets with greater love and care than we do ourselves.
If our job was to look after a scared little monkey like this one, we’d do it with affection and gentleness.
Yet it turns out that this is indeed our job.
Inside us all is a scared little monkey. When it gets frightened it leaps up and down and screams. It’s prone to freaking out.
Our job as the human is to guide that monkey through life, to look after it and soothe it.
Our task is to help it past challenges that our human brain knows are not dangerous anymore.
When your scared little monkey next freaks out, what will tell you that you are looking after it better?
How will you know that you are soothing it rather than making it even more frightened?Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice