The lizard in all of us

What--doesn't YOUR dewlap expand when you're threatened? Photo by Alberta P, via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, we’re going to talk SCIENCE! Science, kids! Don your thinking caps, because this is happening!

Specifically, we’re going to discuss the brain. (And I apologize in advance to any neurobiologists or associated smart people because I am simplifying and probably getting this all wrong and LOOK I HAVE A MASTER’S DEGREE IN WRITING NOT SCIENCE-STUFF.)

At some point, each of us has wondered why our brains sometimes seem to be out to get us. “Why in the world am I torturing myself or being self-critical,” we’ve asked ourselves, “when I am, in the end, myself, and should be nice to myself, because I am myself?” And then we went and poured ourselves a nice tall glass of straight gin and promised ourselves that we’d never ask us questions like that again.

But it turns out there’s a reason why we undermine ourselves, and we can explain it using Science. Science is also to blame, though, so I’m just not sure how I feel about Science right now, to be honest.

Deep, deep in our brains are these two little pea-sized nubbins, one in each hemisphere. Together, these are called the amygdala. They’re also known as the “lizard brain,” because they control our most primitive instincts. Back before we evolved into the sophisticated beings we are today, our brains were probably composed of mostly amygdala, because it’s all we needed to keep ourselves from getting eaten.

The fight or flight response and our various responses to stress and fear happen because of the amygdala. When we were in the wild, we needed the amygdala to survive. Fight or flight is an extraordinarily useful reaction when you’re being chased by a panther, for example. Your pupils dilate so you can see better, your heart rate increases so you can perform physically, and your insides are bathed in stress hormones. It’s reassuring to know that just in case a panther escapes your local zoo, you have internal resources that can help you out.

The problem with the amygdala, however, is that it’s stupid. Sorry, amygdala. Its response is primitive because it itself is primitive, and while it can come in handy in moments of extreme stress, mostly the responses tend to be out of proportion to the threats we face in a modern world. When your boss reprimands you in front of all of your coworkers, you don’t need to make a fast getaway and/or tear open his/her carotid artery, but that’s what your lizard brain primes you to do. Similarly, if you’re working on a strange new project, your amygdala might not like it. New, to the lizard brain, is bad. New means Uncharted and Maybe Poisonous and Danger.

The fight or flight response when it comes to writing or creative pursuits, however, can disguise itself. What happens is that your lizard brain brings up all these warning signals, and the more sophisticated parts of your brain construct a narrative to make sense of them. Like, you feel bad because your work is terrible. Your work is terrible because you didn’t pay attention in school. Real writers aren’t uncomfortable when they write. You should probably just give up. You’re ignoring your family and they need you. Boy, you’re selfish. This is all a load of nonsense that’s simply based on primitive fear that’s bubbling up from deep within your brain. It’s fiction. Hey, look, you’re writing!

The lizard brain needs reassurance and routine, and it also needs to be put firmly in its place. I encouraged you to set up a writing schedule precisely because schedules and routines reassure the lizard brain. Even with a schedule, though, writing can be scary. So when you get those feelings of resistance and helplessness, identify them. Greet your lizard brain. Pat its scaly head and tell it to go lie on a rock for warmth. Once it knows you’re onto it, it’ll pipe down and let you get back to work.

Article Posted 5 years Ago

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