Our Reptilian Brain

Saturday 9th July 2016

We are more reptilian than we might like to think

Is it because of our reptilian brain that we find it so difficult to explain the extremes of human behaviour that we see in ourselves and in others? That is a pretty tough question to answer.

I often use the phrase ‘reptile brain’. I know what it means to me but find it difficult to explain to others, so I have no idea what it means to them. I have given this much thought and I have come to the conclusion that as somebody who is supposed to be a professional presenter this is just not good enough. So better late than never I started some further research.

The first thing that I discovered is that I should have been using the phrase ‘reptilian brain’ rather than ‘reptile brain’. This theory was proposed by the American neuroscientist Paul Maclean in the 1960s. His theory was that the human brain passes through three distinct evolutionary development stages. I will attempt to describe this without using all the long words that McLean used.

The first developmental stage is the reptilian brain,  and forms the floor to our human brain. It is the least developed part of our brain and is associated with primitive behaviours such as aggression, protection of territory and ritual displays of these and other basic emotions.

The next level of our brain is called the limbic system. This is also a widely used term and it came as a surprise to me to discover that once again it was Maclean who introduced this term. His view was that this part of the brain was also instinctive but involved in higher social behaviours.

These higher social behaviours included reproductive behaviour, closely followed by behaviours required to raise offspring. Behaviours such as feeding and providing  parental support are seen at their highest level in human beings and at lower levels of development in fish and birds. As far as I am aware reptiles show little social nurturing behaviours other than eating their offspring given half a chance.

The highest level of brain development relates to our cortex. This is where we have our most complicated thoughts, such as language, perception of our environment, planning, logical thought, and also the formulation of abstract ideas.

In earlier blogs I briefly revisited the work of Freud and Jung with the benefit of 20/20 retrospective vision. As I mentioned then it is now fashionable to trash their work, but this is always easy with hindsight. At the time I think their work on the origin of thought deserved huge credit. There are many similarities between their views and Maclean’s.

Another interesting extrapolation of Maclean’s work relates to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. At the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid is the human need for survival. At the higher levels of the pyramid if we are lucky enough to make it that far are the loftier human needs of peer respect and the importance of leaving a noble legacy for the future.

The reason why I spent longer than I intended on this research is because I am trying to understand why so much human behaviour defies logical interpretation. The conclusion that I reached is that as a species we have grossly underestimated the power that the reptilian brain has on our thoughts.

We also grossly overestimate the power of our higher mental centres in creating original thought. It appears that much of this higher mental activity is spent not on creativity but on trying to justify why our thoughts and behaviours have so little basis on rationality.

Reptile thinking is never more prevalent than during times of stress and conflict. It brings out our worst qualities, and sadly there is plenty of stress around at the moment. So anything that we can do to chill the power of our reptilian brain will be more important now than ever before.

I will end this piece with another tough question. As a talking therapist which area of the brain should be the focus of my therapeutic interventions? I welcome your comments!