Return of the Reptile


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Obstacles are like wild animals.  They are cowards but they will bluff you if they can.  If they see you are afraid of them… they are liable to spring upon you; but if you look them squarely in the eye, they will slink out of sight.  ~O.S. Marden

I grew up watching Japanese monster movies.  I always felt sorry for Godzilla. The mutant aquatic invertebrate was hatched out of the ebony depths by a radioactive blast on some distant Pacific atoll and then dragged into a modern world where his might no longer made right.  He would be betrayed by ignorant public officials, stung by toy tanks, blasted by model airplanes flying on silk threads and battered by automatic weapons spitting sparks.

Godzilla was misunderstood.  He would try to make nice with the humans but regress devouring army men like California Rolls and trashing buildings and karaoke bars with his atomic breath.  Godzilla hated change. He just wanted it to be the way it used to be where he was on top of the food chain – superior to all comers — fire-breathing turtles, gigantic moths or monsters that looked like something you might encounter in a public restroom at a bran muffin festival.

Godzilla was, first and foremost, a reptile. He was genetically predisposed to the most basic needs – eating, sleeping, fighting and cruising Tokyo looking for a female lizard. Paleontologists believed he was the dinosaur equivalent of a teenager – which makes sense.  He had a big mouth, bad attitude and an inability to compromise.  Life was a veritable buffet of visceral pleasures and he was preprogrammed to get his share.  He wanted to do the right thing but his reptilian brain kept getting in the way.

After years of Godzilla movies and parenting, I am able to recognize a reptilian brain from a kilometer away.  The neurology of how we make decisions is driven by three distinct areas of our brain– the stem or “reptilian” section is the ground floor of our intelligence. It is our most basic analog personality. Reptilians like reality TV and pizza.  The limbic or “mammalian” mid-sections of our noggins are characterized by memory, emotion and reflective decision making. Mammalians tend to watch American Idol and cry during “Old Yeller”.  If you are really evolved, your cerebral elevator reaches the penthouse of thinking – – the largest and most evolved area known as the Neo-Cortex.  The crown of our brain is a less inhabited penthouse of higher intelligence that allows us to make our best decisions and is decorated with really cool art-deco furniture.  It is underutilized and as such, feels more like a second home.  Those who rely on their neo-cortex can complete the Saturday NY Times Crossword, understand why people watch “The Bachelor” and write Haiku poetry with their left hand.

These three portions combine into something that neurologists refer to as the “triune brain”.  Interestingly, most people spend time on the first and second floors – moving between the stem and limbic portions of the brains.  Climbing up to the neo-cortex is a hassle for most.  There are brief episodes of enlightened thinking usually following a triple latte, yoga or a vegan meal.  With the advent of cable television and the internet, many of our mental elevators have essentially stopped running to the penthouse.  In fact, in times of geopolitical uncertainty and economic angst, reptilian thinking is making a comeback.

Signs of reptilian thinking are everywhere.  When my roof started leaking last winter due to ice damming, the water dripped down the inside of my living room walls and pooled on the roof of the basement where myopic teens played X-Box in between meals and belching.  As the water began to seep through the dry wall ceiling and on to the sofa where they were sitting, the boys merely shifted out of the way of the nascent waterfall and continued to play COD – Black Ops while our sofa began to swell like a wet diaper.  An hour later, one calmly informed me that the sofa was wet and theorized that the water leeching from the ceiling might be the source.

Reptilian brains are very binary.  Any stimulus is typically processed through a single series of highly self serving filters.  The reptile asks, “Does this represent a threat to me?  Can I crush the source of anxiety or should I flee from it?  Should I stay here on the couch playing video games or do I get up and deal with a problem that really has nothing to do with me?”

We seem to be regressing as a society into highly self-centered thinking.  Many are reaching the frightening conclusion that the world is a life boat and there are simply not enough supplies to go around.  Michael Lewis acknowledges this phenomena in his recent book,  Boomerang -Travels in the New Third World, where he describes society at a tipping point where we will either demonstrate greater emotional intelligence and learn to defer our own need for instant gratification or we will continue to on a path toward bankrupting our future. It will come down to character — as a person, community and as a nation.

Reptilian thinkers live for today.  They are afraid if they don’t grab something while they can, it won’t be there for them when they need it.  The reptile does not want to hear inconvenient facts or engage in a mammalian debate about consequences and moral obligations.  Let tomorrow take care of itself.  Now is not the time to be German and plan for the bridge 500 kilometers ahead.  It is better to be Greek and cross that bridge when we come to it.

The reptile is rustling in the leaves of my brain. I am all that I think about.  I cannot wait for people to stop talking so we can discuss my favorite subject – me.  I find it harder to reflect on a solution to a problem when I am hobbled by the nagging need to know what’s in it for me.  I am afraid.  I don’t want to end up on “Hoarders”.

I am not rational but the media keeps telling me that something wicked is coming. I rise from my couch and stagger like a giant monster toward the kitchen – seeking solace in sugar and simple carbohydrates.   I am suddenly scolded out of my self-pity.  I am reminded by my partner – who relies on her evolved neo-cortex – that fear and faith cannot occupy the same place.  She tells me all reptiles can evolve – if they learn to adapt.  Eventually, they become mammals – embracing the inevitability of change.  The first step towards becoming mammalian is to acknowledge the needs of others.

On this night, Godzilla is asked to take out the trash.  As I lumber down the stairs toward the outdoor trash bins, I realize that in removing the rubbish, I am being of service to my spouse and getting out of my own head.  Less trash in the house also reduces the probability that I will become a hoarder.

Now if I can just get rid of this radioactive breath….

2 thoughts on “Return of the Reptile

  1. Steve Harris March 7, 2012 / 10:21 pm

    Mike,
    great brain analysis, the amygdala is so misunderstood. thanks for giving the limbic system the props it deserves.
    Steve H.

  2. JimPurdy.blogspot.com March 9, 2012 / 4:40 am

    QUOTE:
    “Those who rely on their neo-cortex can complete the Saturday NY Times Crossword”

    Okay. Which brain succumbs to the fake journalists in Fox News, the tell-a-lie-evangelists on religious channels, and the screaming loonies on hate radio? The primordial swamp proto-brain?

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