Rethinking the reptilian brain.

lizard triune brain myth

This is a long read, so click here to download a PDF to read offline or share.


The lizard brain: the myth lurking in every coaching conversation.

Have you noticed the lizard brain lurking in the pages of self-help books, leadership pep-talks, sales and marketing presentations, life-coach Instagram posts, and even psychology textbooks?

  • “Lizards can’t be leaders!”
  • “Stimulate your customer’s lizard brain to make a sale.”
  • “The reptilian brain and how it can stop your child from learning.”
  • “The reptilian brain has the power to block therapy.”

Two places you’ll rarely find a lizard brain is lurking within the pages of contemporary neuroscience or evolutionary biology textbooks.

Why?

Because the concept is widely discredited by neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists: the model is out-of-date and not based on contemporary science.  

Origins of the reptilian brain myth

The concept behind the ‘triune brain’ or ‘reptilian/lizard brain’ was proposed back in the 1960s by neuroscientist Paul Maclean. MacLean suggested that the human brain is divided into three layers that each emerged in succession in the course of evolution.

The oldest, the ‘reptilian brain’ or ‘r-complex’ controls basic functions such as breathing, body temperature and heart rate. Next, the limbic system controls emotional responses. Finally, the cerebral cortex controls language and reason.

Despite McLean originally tagging the basal ganglia as the reptilian brain, I’ve seen the phrase used to describe or label almost every brain structure except for the pre-frontal cortex!

Here are some examples where the reptilian brain is randomly labelled:

It is widely used by therapists, coaches and ‘gurus’ to explain human behaviour, and most often to describe our response to threats via ‘fight or flight’ responses.

The model especially appeals to psychotherapists because it seems to give biological credence to Freud’s theory of personality with the id, ego and superego mapping neatly onto the reptilian, limbic and cortical brains.

Or it’s used to explain the irrationality of human behaviour whereby emotions dominate rational thought or logic. In fact, MacLean called the limbic system the ‘paleomammalian complex’ and put that in charge of emotions and ‘fight or flight’.

This utter lack of consistency, vagueness and confusion is perhaps a clue it’s a rather useless descriptor!

Our brains did not evolve from lizards

A recent, and entertainingly titled paper, ‘Your Brain Is Not an Onion With a Tiny Reptile Inside’ published in the Current Directions in Psychological Science addresses the many problems with the lizard brain model.

Authors Joseph Cesario, David J. Johnson and Heather L. Eisthen urges people to “abandon this mistaken view of human brains.”

From the perspective of evolutionary biology (not my expertise) the authors state the triune brain idea is “in contrast to the clear and unanimous agreement on these issues among those studying nervous-system evolution.”

From the perspective of evolution, they note three major problems with the triune brain model.

Firstly, it implies evolution is a linear progression with one organism evolving into the next:

lizards >  mice >  monkeys > humans

And at the same time more complex layers of brain are added on top of pre-existing layers.

This is wrong! Mammals did not evolve from reptiles. Mammals and reptiles share a common fish-like ancestor.

“… the correct view of evolution is that animals radiated from common ancestors. Within these radiations, complex nervous systems and sophisticated cognitive abilities evolved independently many times.”

Cesario et al

Secondly, the cerebral cortex is not unique to mammals because reptiles, fish and birds have a cerebral cortex too.

Thirdly, the brain did not evolve with more sophisticated layers built over simpler layers.

“The notion of layers added to existing structures across evolutionary time as species became more complex is simply incorrect.”

Cesario et al

Emotions are not pre-wired, we construct them

From the neuroscience perspective, the reptilian brain analogy ultimately falls apart when we consider our up-to-date understanding of the neurobiology of emotions and behaviour.

In 2020, most neuroscientists no longer support the notion that our lives are ruled by hard-wired instincts deployed automatically in response to particular triggers with certain emotions accompanied by a specific facial expression and physical sensation. This so-called ‘classical view’ of emotions is falling out of favour as we learn more about how the brain works, more about how humans learn and even more about consciousness.

Instead, evidence points towards a theory of ‘constructed emotion’.

This theory proposes that emotions are not pre-programmed into our brains. Instead, various ‘ingredients’ are processed by entire brain networks to ‘construct’ consciously experienced feelings in the moment.

The ingredients of emotions

The ingredients of emotions include:

  • the physiological sensations we feel in our body
  • the situation we’re in
  • the people we’re with
  • our memories and personal experiences
  • the language we’ve learned to describe our conscious feelings.

Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett states,

“An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world”.

Lisa Feldman Barrett

Joseph LeDoux has proposed a similar theory of emotion construction based on decades of studying that most ‘primal’ of emotions: fear. He states the conscious feeling of fear emerges when certain nonconscious ‘ingredients’ coalesce and are cognitively interpreted or ‘noticed’.

“Emotions like fear are often said to have been inherited from animal ancestors… Fear and anxiety are not biologically wired. They do not erupt from a brain circuit in a pre-packaged way as a fully formed conscious experience.”

Joseph LeDoux

Evolution has done the heavy lifting, and we possess swift-acting threat-detection circuits (including the amygdala and hypothalamus). But learning and memory, language and culture are additional raw ingredients that are added to the mix to create conscious feelings of fear and anxiety.

There is no hard-wired lizard-brain ‘fear’ circuit.

As LeDoux points out, we can feel threatened by a variety of events: predators, lack of food or water can cause us to fear starvation or dehydration; extremely low temperatures can cause fear of death by hypothermia; cancer diagnoses scare us all; public health officials used to fear a global outbreak of a contagious virus, many of us worry about political instability, economic loss, social abuse, and existential concerns. (That lizard must be very evolved!)

For those who want to explore these ideas further, here’s a helpful meta-analysis testing Barrett’s hypothesis.

We label emotions based on context

It certainly seems like emotions are sudden, subconscious experiences that are deployed automatically. But if you stop to think about this carefully, you’ll realise how often we might experience an emotion that is inappropriate or misattributed simply because of the situation we’re in.

For example, we often use the phrase ‘fight or flight’ to describe activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), whereby the release of noradrenaline from nerve endings and directly into the bloodstream increases heart rate and breathing and directs blood to the large leg muscles. (And, of course the reptilian brain is often said to respond to and trigger ‘fight or flight’).

Contrary to the romanticised version of events, Mother Nature did not evolve the SNS exclusively to save ancient cave-dwelling humans from sabre-tooth tigers. The SNS evolved to meet the body’s energy demands to all matter of threats and challenges and opportunities.

Consider a lion, an antelope, and an athlete.

The lion chasing the antelope, the antelope itself, and the athlete running a 400m race all experience SNS activation, enabling them to run fast and meet their particular challenge.

But to who do we attribute ‘fear’?

Only to the antelope, not the athlete. Certainly not the lion. When, in fact, the same physiological ingredient (SNS activation) is involved, but in slightly different contexts, which leads us to use very different ’emotion’ words to describe how the lion, antelope or athlete might be feeling.

See how we intuitively know that context matters.

Name it to tame it.

If you’re a therapist or coach, you’ll know the ability to recognise and develop vocabulary is necessary to analyse and reflect on emotional patterns.

Consider the worlds of feeling captured in the following words: mad, meek, mean, miserable, malevolent, marvellous, manipulated, manipulative, misunderstood, mischievous, mopey, melodramatic, moody, melancholy, mirthful, moved, morose, or manic?

The brain doesn’t contain a pre-packed hard-wired repository of emotions in this list. They’re all concepts we gradually learn about as we grow up. We learn the appropriate vocabulary to describe how we feel relevant to a particular situation or social context.

Little children lack specific emotion words. So a three-year-old watching an older sibling eating ice cream in front of them will most likely feel very sad. A 13-year-old with a decade of experience and a larger vocabulary would perhaps experience something like mild envy when they realise the ice cream was given to their sibling by a teacher for winning a spelling bee.

Learning new emotion words isn’t limited to childhood.

As Barrett points out, there was once no English word for the feeling of pleasure at someone else’s misfortune till the Germans donated us “schadenfreude”. When we learn a new expression or description, we’re more likely to recognise and experience that emotion in the future. Schadenfreude is not a hard-wired emotion deployed only by German speakers when someone they dislike screws up.

Tim Lomas at the University of East London has taken the notion of learning new words to describe emotions to the next level in his Positive Lexicography Project. He gathers words of “precise emotional experiences that are neglected by the English language”.

Do you recognise these nuanced emotional experiences?

  • Desbundar (Portuguese) – to shed one’s inhibitions in having fun.
  • Gigil (Tagalog) – the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished.
  • Natsukashii (Japanese) – a nostalgic longing for the past, with happiness for the fond memory, yet sadness that it is no longer.
  • Yuan bei (Chinese) – a sense of complete and perfect accomplishment.
  • Sukha (Sanskrit) – genuine lasting happiness independent of circumstances.

I’ve been using the Dutch word “melig” for years after learning it from friends on a holiday in the Netherlands. It describes that delicious slightly sleepy state when everything is hilarious or silly and you giggle at anything.

Barratt and other researchers have compiled evidence that if you increase your emotional vocabulary or ‘emotional granularity’, you can influence future emotional experiences.

In this way, expanding your emotion vocabulary is a bit like owning a mental wellbeing thesaurus, giving you a strong sense of agency over the situations and responses you experience.

Lisa Feldman Barrett

Would any of this be possible if the lizard brain was in charge?

Does it matter if we use the term ‘the reptilian brain’?

TL:DR: Yes!

We are not born with hard-wired pre-packaged emotions emerging from a lizard brain. The human brain is not a tripartite series of separate complexes. We are not at the mercy of our lizard brain when we experience threats. We’ve established that.

But does it matter if we use an (incorrect) analogy of how the brain works?

A coach educator commented on my Instagram recently that it doesn’t matter. She said, “I teach triune brain concept to my students with a caveat that the theory is outdated and neurobiologists can’t agree on evolution point and on borders between ‘brains’. However, for coaches, it’s an easy concept to grasp and understand.”

I wouldn’t teach a concept that was flat-out wrong. And I like to give more credence to my student’s ability to grasp basic neuroscience concepts!

Casario and colleges ask the same question

“Does it matter if psychologists have an incorrect understanding of neural evolution?”

Cesario et al

and they answer their own question with the statement,

“We are scientists. We are supposed to care about true states of the world even in the absence of practical consequences.”

Cesario et al

If you’re a scientist, I’m sure you agree!

If you’re not a scientist, but you ‘use’ brain science to explain behaviour or employ the technique of psychoeducation in your work, please do not be seduced (nor seduce others) by the allure of the neuroscience explanation. Especially one that’s plain wrong and removes emotional agency from your client.

My problem with the reptilian brain analogy is that it implies human behaviour is driven first and foremost by fear. And that the reptilian brain overpowers the ability to have calm and rational thought.

The model side-steps any discussion of the enormous diversity of emotional experiences we are capable of and which deeply move us: passionate love, envy, desire, awe, contentment, grief, exhilaration, tenderness. And it removes any sense of agency we have for new emotional experiences in the future.

As Barrett points out in her book,

“Humans are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep in the animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience.”

When you teach people how emotions are created from various ‘ingredients’ you are doing more than communicating, you are creating reality. You are teaching tools for making meaning of body sensations and how to act on them, to communicate with nuance how they feel. This is an essential life skill!

Alternatives to conversations about the triune brain

Instead of defaulting to a conversation about ‘the reptilian brain’ here’s a few neuroscientifically and evolutionary correct stories or explanations to use.

In the spirit of the positive lexicography project, if you have any other useful explanations of human brains or behaviour that you use (that don’t involve reptiles) leave a comment below.

The Adaptive Brain

In their 2022 Frontiers in Psychiatry paper ‘The Brain Is Adaptive Not Triune: How the Brain Responds to Threat, Challenge, and Change‘ authors Steffen, Hedges and Matheson propose

“… a new evolutionarily based model, the adaptive brain, that is founded on adaptive prediction resulting from interdependent brain networks using interoception and exteroception to balance current needs, and the interconnections among homeostasis, allostasis, emotion, cognition, and strong social bonds in accomplishing adaptive goals … 

A triune-brain framework limits understanding of pathophysiology.”

“…modern neuroscience research demonstrates that the triune brain theory does not accurately explain how the brain functions in everyday life or during the stress response. Specifically, emotion and cognition are interdependent and work together, the limbic system is not a purely emotional centre nor are there purely emotional circuits in the brain, and the cortex is not a purely cognitive centre nor are there purely cognitive circuits in the brain.”

Brain anatomy

  • If you’re describing brain anatomy and want to distinguish the amygdala from the hypothalamus from the brainstem, I recommend you use this online 3D brain anatomy tool.

What are emotions

  • “Emotions are made up of ingredients such as your bodily sensations, your life experiences and expectations, the people you’re with, the situation you’re in. What ingredients have helped build the emotion you’re feeling at the moment?”
  • “We are the architects of our thinking and behaviour; we are also the architects of our emotions.”
  • “Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action.”
  • “You can practice emotions in advance of a situation by teaching your brain the most useful way to respond in a situation. Actors do this all the time. The emotions they feel on stage are real because they rehearsed their creation.”
  • “Worry is repeating a thought over and over again. You are practising that thought, and with practice, it gets easier to experience the thought over time. You can practice positive thoughts and emotions instead. ”

Emotional regulation

  • “Just like a painter learns to see fine distinctions in colours, or a wine connoisseur develops their palette to experience tastes non-experts can’t taste, you can practice naming emotions. With practice, you can become an expert namer and categoriser of emotions.”
  • “Emotions such as sadness come in many shades of blue. Let’s come up with five words to describe how you feel today.”

Fear & autonomic responses

  • Try to deconstruct the ingredients of your emotions especially your body sensations. e.g a fast-beating heart doesn’t necessarily mean your brain has detected a threat or there is something to fear. Perhaps your heart is beating faster because you’re excited, or you’re getting ready to exercise.
  • If someone is scared of a spider, ask them to describe the spider using as many emotion words as possible, e.g. “The spider in front of me makes me feel disgusting, nerve-wracking and jittery but is kind of intriguing.”

This is a long read, so click here to download a PDF to read offline or share.


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90 Comments

  1. Sigrid Loos on June 25, 2020 at 6:38 am

    This is a fascinating article. Thank you so much for these insights!

    • Lakshmi on December 30, 2021 at 6:13 am

      Very interesting read. I started out by browsing for “reptilian brain in humans” and landed on this website. The brain is fascinating.

      • Petra on December 3, 2022 at 6:57 am

        You just described me. I was reading David Icke’s book “The biggest secret” I came across Reptilian brain and decided to look it up. And here I am. A very good read indeed

  2. Jeri on June 25, 2020 at 6:47 am

    Love this! After completing the academy and getting Caught up in finding alternatives available. This is helpful!!

  3. Pam McIntosh on June 25, 2020 at 9:37 am

    I find this really interesting especially in light of listening to a you tube video on the Science of Compassion by Stephen Porges. I was struggling with some of the things he was saying in light of what I have learned in your course (2018 alumni). I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but after reading this article…you totally nailed it for me. Thanks heaps for sharing this….very timely. I am doing a Counselling and Neuroscience course and Trauma Informed Practice – there is a lot of emphasis on the Polyvagal Theory in supporting clients health/recovery.

    • Blackwaterpark on November 10, 2021 at 8:18 am

      Hello Pam,

      I think this article is great, but have you really paid attention to the claims that PVT is making? I am not trying to be a party breaker but Porges claims are flat out wrong on the vagus nerve and are absolutely not supported by empirical evidence and by the existing littérature.

      I will recommend humbly to check Paul grossman’s research gate on PVT, you might change your mind on it.

      Respectfully,

      • Peer on February 5, 2022 at 7:39 pm

        I think Porges is right on the neurobiological processes, but we are speaking Phenomenological stuff here in this article. Dont confuse these exist parallel as the article explains with the lion antilope and runner example.

        • Pilrgim on January 6, 2023 at 10:41 am

          100%. BTW Grossman doesn’t understand polyvagal theory despite Porges best attempts to help him. I believe a rebuke of Grossman in the literature is coming soon.

          • Sarah McKay on January 29, 2023 at 12:53 pm

            I too fail to understand PVT …



          • A.R. on July 19, 2023 at 8:45 am

            I think Grossman’s point is that the science does not support the claims made by the PVT. that doesn’t mean that the vagus nerve is not involved in our nervous system responses.

            There is nothing wrong with making adjustments or building a different model to better reflect data. I call that good science



  4. Rod Irwin on June 25, 2020 at 11:12 am

    Hi Sarah,
    Love this!
    The Shiva-Sutra describes a state of being “wonderstruck” with life, awareness, and reality. Called vismayo, this state describes how a person experiences waking life, sleep, dream, and our material reality as one. Awesome!

    • Shashank Sherkar on July 7, 2020 at 7:37 pm

      Finally some real information in the digital world full of misinformation. As all living beings have progressed with time and gave birth to certain species did they stop there? This is my curiosity. Because just like humans have a well developed brain so do monkeys, elephants and wolves. Human reactions to an action are personal first while the animals living in packs or herds must have a mechanism and seek the help of Alpha Male or leader of the pack to cope up with it. We humans do the same by seeking guidance from others and elders and mostly we save this into our brain. If a similar situation arises again we are ready. Thanks for sharing a nice information to shed away old thought and to evolve!

  5. Rena on June 25, 2020 at 11:28 am

    Thanks for this! What is the current consensus on the function of our threat-scanning brain equipment? Is it accepted that humans have instinctual wiring that scans for danger and sends us into fight/flight mode when a threat is perceived? And that using techniques like deep breathing can return us to a calm, PNS state? I no longer teach triune brain, but I still teach methods for regulating first-responder stress signals. I want to make sure I am not mis-peaking!

    • Sarah McKay on June 25, 2020 at 11:43 am

      This is correct. Deep breathing definitely returns us to a calmer state. We regulate our breathing rate using our phrenic nerve (a motor nerve that innervates the diaphragm) and the slower breathing somehow signals to the parasympathetic nervous system to activate and ‘calm’ down. There’s still a bit of a gap in our neuro-knowledge how exactly the slower breathing activates the PNS. (Important to note here the PNS doesn’t slow breathing, we consciously do that via the phrenic nerve).
      Also, it looks like there’s a difference between this ‘subconscious’ threat detectiion + SNS response and our ‘conscious’ experience of the emotion ‘fear’. Like I say, we need a few more ‘ingredients’ that simply SNS activated to cause the emotion of fear. We can also ‘feel scared’ but not necessarily have a physical response. LeDoux talks a lot about this subtle but super important difference.

      • Andrei on March 13, 2021 at 9:03 am

        Dear Sarah

        Really great read! I have a small question to your reply above – “We can also ‘feel scared’ but not necessarily have a physical response.” How can you feel something but not have a physical response attached to it, otherwise how is it felt?

        • Ethel on May 16, 2022 at 6:54 pm

          An example can be seen in Norman’s article【https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229060054_Affect_and_Proto-Affect_in_Effective_Functioning】: Reaction precedes fear generation. Danger is presented by taking a series of actions (instinctive, behavioral) before fear (reflective). The analogy to feeling scared but not necessarily reacting physically is that the reflective layer acts to control the action. Examples are as follows:
          【Many years ago, one of the authors spent a year in a coastal town in tropical Africa. One day, on his way to the beach, he drove slowly and painfully across a shallow, rough, dry riverbed with the window open. Suddenly, out of the blue, he saw a huge crocodile, which had been lying motionless on the riverbed disturbed by an approaching car. Panicked, he put his foot on the brake pedal, brought the car to a stop, leaned over the empty passenger seat and expertly rolled up the window on the alligator’s side. That done, he rolled up the window on his (driver’s) side and, trembling and beating, slowly and painfully steered out of the riverbed to where he thought he was safe. Then, and only then, did he realize how scared he was.
          In this example, a potential threat is detected and a quick protective behavior program is initiated. There is too little time to optimize the selected program. The system is satisfactory, not optimized. In fact, it might make more sense to move on — crocodiles are unlikely to climb through the passenger window of a moving car and eat the driver. Presumably, the driver stopped for the convenience of closing the window, but it wasn’t thought out or planned — it just did it — a series of “stop” procedures followed by the “close the window” i-outine. This behavior can’t be best described as a reaction to fear, or even part of it, says Felt-Urmor. As described, the emotion of fear only emerged after the driver had taken protective action and removed himself from the situation — only then, in reviewing his beating heart, his panicked and imperfect behavioral response, and the situation he had just been in, did he realize how scared he was. In other words, the emotion is identified (labeled) as fear only after the behavior and sense of congruence (of physical change) are interpreted and enhanced by the reflective plane of cognition. The condition can best be described as starting with primitive feelings of fear (including awareness of physical changes) and then, with interpretation and additional cognition, producing mature feelings of fear.】

  6. Diana on June 25, 2020 at 8:58 pm

    Dear Sarah, I’m one of your alumnae at the Neuroscience Academy and I LOVE THIS ARTICLE. So explanative, clear, enlightening! THANK YOU.
    I still meet people that teach the triune brain and also the famous “Conversational Intelligence” model of Judith Glaser is basically rooted in this vision of the brain with a reptilian part. Problem is: although I learnt with you some years ago that this model was outdated I wasn’t able to articulate enough effectively an alternative that could be useful for my clients to enhance the responsibility they have in taking care of our emotions and cultivate intentionally how to respond to the most discomforting ones. NOW I HAVE IT! The last part of this article especially lays out with details how to face a conversation around this. Problem is: meanwhile I used Judith Glaser’s 5-parts brain model!!! So have can I amend that with my coachees, my corporate clients where I train people on leadership etc.? It makes me uncomfortable to say “You know what? there’s a better explanation that I know ill propose you!”. Has anybody handled that and can give me a hint? Thank you!

    • LIza on August 8, 2021 at 5:34 am

      Very nice, explaining human free will , able define and redefine emotion, after all emotion is energy in motion. How about the folks lore pre dated before history? All religions have same lore about dragon, reptilian trying be validate it presence in in human mind since down the humanity. Why not different animal, instead reptilian, snakes. The universal fear of cobra. Triune brain was not only science theory but had tentacle in lore of human kind. ” Faire tale, snake in eden garden, much more. No ancient folks could create it out blue. There is perception in human mind to detect ancient true.
      Reptilian from somewhere dropped in earth to help human development. Where our body achieved such perfection ? How the first cells survived striving in the sour primal ocean. Science need work together with ancient facts baking it, theory only is flaw. That triune brain survived, until archeology prove it lack of true.

      • Lovemore Mukwakwami on December 6, 2022 at 7:23 pm

        i agree with you 100%… in our Bantu language to describe capacity and ability to bear children they use Nyoka a reptile.. or simply put Snake.. To throw all this and many many myths like the Cobra crowns worn by Egyptian pharaohs who were smarter than all modem neuroscientists put together is very very smug and arrogant

  7. peter ffrench on June 25, 2020 at 9:27 pm

    Thanks Sarah
    I’ve been looking for a succinct summary of this .. really appreciate it

  8. Radha on June 26, 2020 at 3:32 am

    I love the article and how descriptive it is yet simple to understand.

    I have been taught this model and I talk about it too but I always felt there were loose ends that didn’t match up somehow.
    I do have a question – I read somewhere that we are wired strongly for negative emotions and which is why it is easier for us to feel negative or bring up bad memories than good ones which have to be consciously thought about. That this is for our survival as the prehistoric man would remember his negative experiences of being attacked by saber tooth more clearly so he would be alert . Is this true ?

  9. Kerry Gibbett on June 26, 2020 at 4:28 pm

    This is the most eloquently written pieces of work on emotions that I have ever read. Sarah, you’ve nailed it! So enjoyable to read. So powerful and far reaching ramifications.
    Thank you.

  10. Judy Hilton on June 26, 2020 at 5:18 pm

    Great post thank you Sarah. I have been reading Lisa’s book and challenging myself to give up the old triune brain model and Eckman/ Mayer Salovey models of EI and face recognition. You make a good point. Just because a model is convenient and easy doesn’t make it accurate.

    • Sarah McKay on June 26, 2020 at 5:55 pm

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with using a simple model to explain something super complex. But in this case the reptilian brain has taken a mind of its own (hah!) and is taught as neuroscience fact. Delighted that you’ve read Lisa’s book and found it useful.

  11. John Quinn on June 27, 2020 at 12:00 am

    This has turned my world upside down. I’d always been troubled by the reptilian brain model but had taken on some of its assumptions. I’ll have to spend some time reworking my understanding to fit with what your saying. We build our own emotional responses and can rebuild them … emotional plasticity? Not fixed circuitry

    • Sarah McKay on July 4, 2020 at 12:32 pm

      I hope upside down in a good way!?

  12. Susan C on June 28, 2020 at 1:02 am

    Thank you for this clear explanation.

    Models like the ‘triune brain’ are appealing, they seem to cut through, bypass? the complexity that is our brain. In doing so, the brain is reduced to its parts and the whole can get lost.

    As a decades old educator I have been through education’s many attempts to simplify or reduce learning to parts. For example, the idea of ‘learning styles’ (never proven empirically) posits that learners can be categorized as ‘visual’, ‘auditory’ or ‘kinetic’ and that teaching should play to the ‘strength’ of the learner. The theory misses the fact that it takes a whole brain to learn. Deep, rich mental processing does not ‘have a chance’ with such theories.

    From Eric Kandal (Reductionism in Art and Brain Science)
    * “While our eyes do provide information we need to act, they do not present our brain with a finished product”.

    * and “…while brain structures are separable conceptually at every level of organization, they are related to one another anatomically and functionally, and therefore cannot be separated physically”.

  13. Debbie Green on July 4, 2020 at 1:37 am

    Thank you for this Sarah – great explanation and it made perfect sense. I can now adapt my language with working with my coaches as it gives a much better understanding of what is going on for them at that moment and can now “drop” the term reptilian brain – thank you.

    • Sarah McKay on July 4, 2020 at 12:31 pm

      Delighted to hear this 🙂

  14. Nikki H on July 5, 2020 at 4:17 am

    This blew my mind, too! Thanks for writing this! Another common thing we hear a lot about is that we have a “negativity bias” in the way humans think, which I always connected to the reptilian brain. To paraphrase what I’ve commonly heard (and taught!), we evolved by learning how to stay safe, find food, avoid being eaten by a predator, etc. That constant scanning for danger means that we’re “hard wired” to be on the lookout for threats and so we naturally pay attention to things that seem dangerous. Do you think “negativity bias” is a thing?

    • John Haime on June 30, 2022 at 11:25 am

      Hi Nikki,

      I think it’s natural to instinctively be in survival mode – to avoid threats that could compromise our safety. The negativity bias or “don’t” and “can’t” keeps us in check – but it is our job to challenge it in order for us to achieve and live a life of passion. In my work with performers, it is much easier for the performer to succumb to the idea of no risk vs. the idea of risk and the thought there might be some threat to “putting ourselves out there”.

  15. TonyVT Skarredghost on July 5, 2020 at 10:40 pm

    My whole life is a lie! I have spoken about this model with many friends after I have learned about it, I think I have to change how I speak. Awesome article!

    BTW I am curious: The model of the “three brains” explains quite well some of our mechanisms… with what new model should we substitute it when talking about the internal debate between instincts and rational thoughts?

    • Roy Jensen on February 16, 2021 at 3:25 pm

      I too am looking for a model that accurately represent the mental states of an individual.
      I have asked a separate question, and I look forward to an answer.

      • Sarah McKay on February 16, 2021 at 4:57 pm

        Hi Roy, I recommend you read Barrett’s ‘How Emotions are Made’. She is far more eloquent than I am, and provides many excellent metaphors/stories. The book is linked in the blog.

  16. Christiaan Zandt on July 31, 2020 at 6:18 pm

    I loved this article in many ways, debunking as well as offering alternatives!
    My brows raised as I read your last suggestion: “ If someone is scared of, say, a spider, ask them to describe the spider using as many emotion words as possible, e.g. “The spider in front of me makes me feel disgusting, nerve-wracking and jittery but is kind of intriguing.””
    You earlier in the article clarify how we construct our emotions. Using language that implies that something else ‘makes me feel’ for me doesn’t reflect what factually happens (as you describe earlier). Just as we could broaden our vocabulary of feeling words, we could help ourselves and others relate differently to reality by using other words to describe the emotional process. so seeing the spider I feel XYZ because I sense this and this in my body and I have had this and this experience etc. Does this make any sense?

    • Sarah McKay on July 31, 2020 at 7:56 pm

      Yes good point.

  17. Adam Blanch on August 1, 2020 at 10:48 pm

    In short, emotions respond to our perceptions of the world, some of which are sensory and some of which are constructed by thought. But I promise you, when faced with a predatory lion you will experience fear regardless of your intervening perceptions. Fear by any other name is still fear, and it’s a hard wired response only mediated by thoughts, not extinguished by them. If you meet a crocodile in your swimming pool you will have reacted from sensory induced fear long before you have even managed to name it, let alone construct a thought about it.

    Though it’s valid to question the oversimplification of complex phenomenon, I think this article overplays the role of constructionism somewhat and underplays the role of biological determinism. The work of Jaak Panksepp is a good place to start understanding the emotional circuitry of the brain.

    • JPH on August 11, 2020 at 5:27 am

      Just a quick question Adam based on your idea …

      “But I promise you, when faced with a predatory lion you will experience fear regardless of your intervening perceptions.”

      So, if a 5 year old who had no knowledge or experience of the potential danger of a lion or crocodile had an encounter with one of them – would they immediately feel fear and respond? Or, would there be curiosity and fascination first – and fear might come later based on the posturing and response of the animal.

      If emotions like fear were hard-wired – the emotional response should be exactly the same from a child with no experience or knowledge and an adult with experience and knowledge about the dangers. It seems logical that a person with knowledge and experience of the dangers of the animal would construct the emotion (quickly) based on the situation they found themselves in.

      • Sarah McKay on August 25, 2020 at 10:27 am

        Great point JPH!

        The question as to whether fear of snakes and spiders is learned or innate has been studied … results are mixed! Some studies of babies show they have an innate stress-response to viewing snakes, others show they don’t have an innate response.

        That’s what makes this whole topic so interesting – the science is continually evolving.

        • Annie O'Shaughnessy on December 30, 2021 at 7:40 am

          Yes and what of the role of epigenetics in “fear.” Is it an equally debunked notion that my grandfather’s intense fear of fire might be passed down to me?

        • Rachel on April 16, 2022 at 10:37 am

          Love your article!! In psychology and the modern wellness and mindfulness world the teaching of reptilian brain has always felt so stupid and dumbing down to me. I also find it offensive simply because I love to sit in the garden and observe lizards, a past time I have enjoyed since childhood. Watching the depth of lizard play, behaviours and social interactions so clearly show our stupid theories on reptilian brains and human nature to be so far off the mark they are comical.

          • Sarah McKay on January 29, 2023 at 12:52 pm

            I have a garden full of lizards too. We’re nothing alike.



    • Sarah on August 12, 2020 at 6:56 am

      No denying that ‘fear’ as a type of emotion exists!! What I’m exploring here is the components that lead to the conscious experience of that emotion, and how we talk about them in a way that is more useful that defaulting to the ‘lizard brain’ story.
      I spend a lot of time ocean swimming and thinking about what scares me under the sea … I often wonder if my nervousness around sharks is learning or innate (I suspect learned) because even teeny harmless sharks such as dusky whalers make me feel jittery, but I’m not scared of much larger creatures that are apparently harmless such as giant blue gropers. I’m convinced I’ve learned to think that way.
      That’s why when we talk about the ‘ingredients’ of emotions we include signals/inputs from our body and our brain’s processing of them, both of which are largely biologically determined.
      From what I understand Jaak Panksepp left a great legacy behind.

    • El Mills on September 3, 2021 at 8:56 am

      Yes, I agree completely.

  18. Julie on August 2, 2020 at 5:47 pm

    kia ora Sarah! This was fascinating to read, thank you! I’m wondering if you could give some insight into how this fits, or does not fit, with models such as the upstairs/downstairs brain (I saw Siegel’s concept was referenced in a guest blog of yours a number of years back), or the Neurosequential model of therapeutics (Bruce Perry)…
    I’d be so grateful for any clarity you could offer.
    ngā mihi nui, Julie

  19. Clarus Dignus on August 16, 2020 at 4:55 am

    Fantastic clarification. Thanks. I’m astounded by the amount of online articles by qualified individuals who equate the reptilian brain to the amygdalae or limbic system.

  20. Linda Hayes-Cooper on August 21, 2020 at 4:22 am

    Hi Sarah,

    This is GOLD! thank you. I’m in a DMM attachment discussion group and we were all attacked for following the lizard brain model. It made sense when looking at therapy, however, this person did not explain WHY we were all wrong. She commented on a popular figure’s inability to repeat his research. You have delivered the real reason, many thanks for clarifying and playing true to science and humanity! love your work.

    • Sarah McKay on August 25, 2020 at 10:18 am

      I’m sorry you were given a hard time for using the lizard brain. I find it is a more useful strategy to provide an alternative model or concept once you’ve pointed out the faults in the original.

  21. Mike Chadeaux on August 23, 2020 at 10:33 pm

    I find this article problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that you completely throw out the role of conditioning. Respondent conditioning is real as evidenced by thousands of studies–we do in fact involuntarily respond to inputs emanating from our environments, and to imply that we “construct” our emotional life is a misnomer at best. Tell the kid with a trauma history that he/she is constructing her emotion when an environmental input sets off a physiological cascade in her body. She can learn to reframe those sensations, but the sensations themselves are what they are. I.e., while it is true that frontal cortex can inhibit signals emanating from subcortical structures and process these signals via Perisylvian language regions, to say that that processing is altering the response prior to its arrival is absurd. The primary emotional response is first. Then cortical regions interpret it based on contextual factors, essentially rebranding it to suit a given context. But that reinterpretation doesn’t alter the character of the initial, unconscious signal. Of course we aren’t wired for the full spectrum of human emotional experiences, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t wired for any emotional experiences, it instead implies that we have learned to reinterpret those foundational emotional experiences as a function of context. In other words, our experiences of emotion are both phylogenic and ontogenic, we do in fact have knee jerk, unconscious physiological responses to stimuli in our environments (phylogenic), but we have also learned to reinterpret those responses (ontogenic).

    So I think your whole premise is flawed and that you’ve created a strawman. The idea that the “lizard brain is in charge” meaning that we have no voluntary control over our emotional lives. I don’t think this is implied when people speak of the lizard brain. I think what they are referring to is automatic physiological responding that is triggered by environmental stimuli (i.e., respondent conditioning). How we interpret and ultimately act on those responses is the role of the cortex. Emotions as you brand them in this article describe only the interpretations made by cortical regions via learning, and not the raw constituents–the contextual and physiological pieces forming those higher order concepts we call emotions.

    • Sarah McKay on August 25, 2020 at 10:14 am

      I disagree with very little of what you’ve said here Mike. So perhaps the devil is in the detail of semantics? Or perhaps I should confess I’m a bit confused by your (rather wordy) response!?

      A few clarifications, you state: ” Emotions as you brand them in this article describe only the interpretations made by cortical regions via learning, and not the raw constituents–the contextual and physiological pieces forming those higher order concepts we call emotions.”

      Perhaps it comes down to describing the ‘ingredients’ or ‘raw constituents’ as emotions versus the ‘interpretations’ ? I don’t believe this concept implies “that processing is altering the response prior to its arrival” Clearly processing happens AFTER the physiological response.

      Note I’ve taken the language ‘construction’ of emotions from ‘ingredients’ directly from the work of Barrett & LeDoux. Perhaps this word choice is not appropriate for discussing trauma with children? I’d be keen to hear how you’d explain it instead?

      Finally, your statement, “The idea that the “lizard brain is in charge” meaning that we have no voluntary control over our emotional lives. I don’t think this is implied when people speak of the lizard brain.” I’ve found the opposite (but I’ve been observing this conversation for a while, so perhaps I’ve constructed a different story around it!

      I do appreciate the time you’ve taken to comment and point out the problems you have with the blog.

      One of the goals of writing this article was to provide an alternative to the problematic ‘reptilian brain’ and the constructed emotions from various ingredients including reflex physiological responses seems to me to be the most useful and accurate. I wonder what you’d suggest as a more useful way of discussing the neurobiology of emotions that what I’ve done here?

    • Kerry on September 24, 2021 at 6:19 am

      Mike Chadeaux, Thank you very much for your well-articulated response to this article!! I was feeling gaslighted as I read it, like I was going down a rabbit-hole that made no sense. Very very much appreciated. I see no evidence at all that the Triune Brain model “side-steps any discussion of the enormous diversity of emotional experiences we are capable of” …. “and removes any sense of agency we have for new emotional experiences in the future.”

      If emotions are “your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean,” then why focus on the nuances of emotion? Emoting is a cathartic exercise with serves to reinforce the story created by the brain. Best to go to the origin, the undistorted message of the body, and work with the sensation itself.

      • Sarah McKay on November 28, 2021 at 12:34 pm

        Thanks for your comment Kerry. However, I take strong issue with your use of the term ‘gas-lighted’. I’ve written a blog post on why we should stop using term lizard brain and offered more useful neuroscience terms in their place.
        Let’s try keep the phrase ‘gaslighting’ for situations in which its use is relevant: deception, manipulation and psychological abuse, not for reading a blog post about neuroscience where you simply disagree with the author.
        All the best,

        • Casey on October 7, 2023 at 1:27 am

          In this discussion, from both sides, we can see that conflict (even simple disagreement) creates a stressor that can impact our relationships with others, and can make us defensive and break down connections. Looking at the comment threads, there is much engagement and connection when people feel agreed with, and subtle microaggression when not. Applied to the content of this blog, we can see that there are different brain states involved in how (and how quickly) we respond in the face of stress. I can certainly appreciate the challenge to semantics. We also can’t deny that we do experience social engagement, fight/flight, freeze, and fawn states of functioning.

  22. Alicia Mccormick on August 25, 2020 at 7:32 am

    Thanks for the article Sarah.
    As a researcher attempting to quantify human emotions with EEG, ive spent many hours thinking about different ways in which emotions exist for different people and the way we speak about them. I have come to similar ponderings around how vocabulary and emotional literacy may shape our emotional worlds more then we realize.
    Its interesting to consider the learning that happens over time as well. I think, through the social interactions we have over time, we have our physiological response, explain it to another person, who then tells us or explains to us the label for that emotion. Obviously we also learn implicitly through listening and watching others. I have contemplated the potential repercussions of a child ‘mislabelling’ an early emotion as a result of misguided learning, additional to the idea of how emotions from person to person may vary based on their variance in labeling.
    However, I think that the more people we speak to, connect with and explain our emotions with, the more emotions we ‘see’, slowly the convergence of all the times we’ve seen or heard someone speak of “sadness” creates a globally understood emotion.

    Further, the I’m unsure whether I agree with the “construction” of emotion, rather, i tend to think it is more of a “labeling”. I think about the perception of pitch and timbre in music. We have sensory organs to receive frequency and amplitude, and brain regions to perceive them. They exist and function independent of any labeling. The conscious label of “guitar, a G note” is what we then learn. This does not take away from the fact that the perception of the note exists, independent of any labelling, anyone could hear that note.

    However, I guess the emotion is less to do with the external simulation of any sensory organ (eyes, ears etc) and instead is a learned response to the whole picture (sight sound smell learning), activating the SNS and then consciously labeling that emotion. For the sights, smells, sounds and context we tend to experience more frequently in life, our label is likely more “solid” – more learned – and also more likely to be shared with other humans.

    I guess the question is – if there is no learning, why the heck do some situations set off the SNS reaction?
    I guess there is never a blank slate, never absolutely zero learning. Are we as humans learning from the moment our bodies have the ability to receive any sensory stimulation?

    Love this topic as much as I hate it. I think the concept of emotion as we know it now will change dramatically over the future and the scientists in 100 years will be laughing at us 😂

    • Sarah McKay on August 25, 2020 at 9:53 am

      As others have commented, perhaps the word ‘constructed’ isn’t always useful? And you’ve suggested label? From Barrett & LeDoux’s perspective, they’d include ‘labelling’ as one of the ingredients rather than the final experience of emotion.

      Thanks for such a thoughtful and insightful response (I mostly love this topic!!). I love to read more about your research if you’re will to share or connect with me?

      • Alicia McCormick on September 24, 2020 at 4:44 pm

        We are connected on LinkedIn (it is how I found this article!) so we can of course chat there. A colleague of mine just mentioned that he’d come across this interesting way of thinking about emotion and referenced Barretts book – I then spoke of this article, lo and behold to see the quotes were direct from Barrett herself!

      • Anita Marsden on December 8, 2020 at 3:34 am

        Hi there, really interested in this as a psychologist who is working in neurodiversity… I’m wondering how we can apply this to child development, especially children who may be non verbal or preverbal or just have very limited emotional vocabulary. Their SNS is being triggered (perhaps by sensory stimuli) and they are finding this aversive (without constructing a label) and this can trigger behaviour that challenges. I guess the SNS activation and F&F explanation is a helpful one for parents to look beyond old behaviour models of appropriate or inappropriate behavior and meet the child’s needs first rather than reinforce app and ignore/punish inappropriate behv.
        Also training in mindfulness my understanding is we all have an ‘feelihg tone’ and that these can be conditioned v early on, perhaps this helps understand behaviour responses even in v young children / babies but where does that s ‘feeling tone’ come from?
        I guess I’m asking can we still use the F&F as a useful explanation to help parents know when a child is triggered and we might need to meet their needs before we rationalise with them?
        Any help understanding this is very useful!
        Thaks
        Anita

        • Sarah McKay on November 28, 2021 at 12:28 pm

          I don’t have an issue with the use ‘fight or flight…so long as it isn’t conflated with SNS activation. Your SNS is activated to accelerate your heart rate as you stand up so you don’t faint…. not because you’re going into ‘fight or flight’ mode.

  23. Sue Brierly on October 25, 2020 at 9:23 pm

    Excellent ! Many thanks

  24. Marie-Josée Michaud on December 22, 2020 at 11:40 pm

    Hello Sarah!
    So excited to begin my journey with neuroscience especially at your side. I have a question for you; I use Transactional Analysis to help leaders grow their EQ. Based on AT, individuals have learned in their ‘growing up surroundings’ that some emotions are permitted and some aren’t. I have experienced this many times and seen accompanied leaders understand this phenomenon and gain access to more positive actions. For example, anger would be expressed instead of fear. They would try to work on the anger problem without consciously knowing that it was fueled by fear. When they could identify their ‘body response’ to either emotions, they were able to access the thoughts, events or people triggering these emotions. So is this taken in account when studies are done regarding emotions? Will the identified ANS Pattern be affected by this? In other words, what if the patterns identified during experimentations are not the ‘real’ emotion but the one they have ‘learned’ to use? And I would not be surprised that the ‘Replication’ would be present as it is quite common in many cultures and for centuries that ‘man should not express fear’ and ‘women should not be angry’. Hopefully, I was able to be clear, my french being my first language :)). Looking forward in reading you! Happy Holidays

  25. Alex on February 13, 2021 at 6:20 am

    Finally, an expert debunking the lizard brain myth that you find in each self-help book for wannabee leaders! 🙂

  26. Roy Jensen on February 16, 2021 at 3:32 pm

    I am looking to develop a coherent strategy for determining the mental state of an individual, and working to get cooperation/compliance.

    The Triune Brain model is not physiologically accurate, but it does provide a reasonably accurate and understandable categorization of human behaviour. Being the contact person for managing difficult situations, I find it convenient and valuable to categorize the people involved as being in their “Lizard/Monkey/Human brain”. This provides a means for identifying the best course of action for obtaining cooperation/compliance.

    If the concept of Lizard/Monkey/Human cannot evolve represent the mental states of an individual and strategies for working with them, can you recommend something that does work?

    Thanks!

    • Sarah McKay on February 16, 2021 at 4:56 pm

      Hi Roy. The blog wraps up with a list of alternatives … I’m adding to this over time.

    • Ian Cormack on June 30, 2022 at 1:32 pm

      Regardless of the ancestral course, definition will be imprecise from here as evolution changes all species. Geography and topography and other -aphys have been important guides of change. Also may I comment on Lion, Antelope and Athlete.. The lion finds hunger frustrating and may fear failing in yet another hunt. The antelope has avoided being eaten nearly daily and has learned confidence in legs and tricks. The athlete invested much in training and fears coming last. My point being: don’t presume to know the emotions governing others.

  27. Katherine on February 24, 2021 at 6:04 pm

    Oh, the cognitive dissonance! I’ve been reading about these themes since last summer (when I also discovered that there’s no evidence to support polyvagal theory!) and trying to identify what can be salvaged from previous understanding. What do you now think about Dan Siegel’s work and the hand model of the brain showing the rational ‘upstairs’ and the ‘primal’ downstairs? This has been so transformative to so many teachers and parents. Is it an oversimplification of how the brain works that still contains some core truths?

    • Sarah McKay on September 3, 2021 at 1:07 pm

      I agree. There’s some truth, but we need a better way of explaining and including the current neuroscience.
      I think the hand model as a way of showing basic anatomy is useful – especially as you always have it ‘at hand’. But remove the references to the triune brain … simply present the pre-front cortex, sub-cortical, spinal cord etc.
      Upstairs & downstairs is a useful story to tell kids about emotional regulation. But of course, the brain doesn’t exist in ‘two layers’.
      All these models need is a tweak & acknowledgement that emotions/thoughts/behaviours etc coming about from various data inputs to the brain. Not emerging fully constructed at birth.

  28. Jody on March 17, 2021 at 10:53 am

    I came here looking for some insight on cognitive perspective and left with a whole lot more. I’m a tactical trainer and have read and heard lots of information on the lizard brain and how it fits with the anatomy of anxiety. Your article provides a very refreshing perspective on a lot of things. Thanks for being willing to share your work!

  29. Fab on March 31, 2021 at 1:09 pm

    This is fascinating. If emotions are constructed out of different ingredients, then it suggests that fear is not located in a single structure such as the amygdala and that the ‘amygdala hijack’ that has become popular and is used to explain the paralysing effect of intense fear on our ability to think does not exist. Could you please elaborate on, or do an article on, this so-called ‘amygdala hijack’. Thanks

    • Sarah McKay on April 26, 2021 at 11:23 am

      I’m working on one!!

      • John on April 29, 2021 at 8:25 am

        In the beginning of your article you state that the Triune Brain theory is not valid because it is not based on contemporary science. Are you saying that we can take nothing away from this theory? Perhaps then you could explain why when we try to use therapies such as psychotherapy (using our very reasonable mammalian brain) and they fail, why do we then have success when we address the problems at the lowest levels using EMDR, Tapping, EFT, et al? Would you also say the Polyvagal Theory has no validity as well?

        • Sarah McKay on November 28, 2021 at 12:27 pm

          No. I’m not saying that psychotherapy etc do not work. Quite the opposite – I’m well aware of the evidence supporting EMDR & talking therapies. I’m just asking we drop the term ‘reptilian brain’.

  30. Ricardo Jimenez on September 3, 2021 at 9:12 am

    Ditto on the amygdala hijack clarification. This is a concept I’ve used for a long time and it reflects (maybe just my confirmation bias at work) my personal subjective experience: there are times where I can’t think rationally because of what I’m feeling (triggered by a memory or an external event), and it takes me some time and conscious effort to return to my normal self where I can put things into perspective and respond, instead of react.

    One thing I would love to understand (I didn’t see it in your article) is how the brain actually evolved? Did all the parts evolve simultaneously? If we don’t have hard-wired fear, why does it feel like it? For example, our reaction when drowning or having a pillow pressed against our faces? Could we experience fear if we had no word for it?

    Thank you for this article.

    • Sarah McKay on September 3, 2021 at 1:10 pm

      Good question. Check out the ‘onion’ paper linked. That should help with the basics of evolution, and also includes useful references.

      Le Doux does a great job (if you have the time & patience to put into his lengthy pieces!!) on that concept. In particular, he teases out the use of ‘fear’ feelings from ‘fear’ circuitry. Its a complex topic to unravel!!

  31. Jack Black on September 3, 2021 at 9:12 am

    Sarah,
    Thank you very much for the explanations. I do a considerable amount of reading about the brain and the mind. I regularly cross reference your material and Lisa’s book when I see comments and explanations regarding the brain’s evolution.
    Have a great day!

  32. Sarah McKay on September 3, 2021 at 1:07 pm

    I agree. There’s some truth, but we need a better way of explaining and including the current neuroscience.
    I think the hand model as a way of showing basic anatomy is useful – especially as you always have it ‘at hand’. But remove the references to the triune brain … simply present the pre-front cortex, sub-cortical, spinal cord etc.
    Upstairs & downstairs is a useful story to tell kids about emotional regulation. But of course, the brain doesn’t exist in ‘two layers’.
    All these models need is a tweak & acknowledgement that emotions/thoughts/behaviours etc coming about from various data inputs to the brain. Not emerging fully constructed at birth.

    • Annie O'Shaughnessy on December 30, 2021 at 7:51 am

      Thank you for this clarification. I am a consultant in schools and support teachers in teaching students about their brain, emotional reactions and ways to regulate emotions. Many use Siegal’s hand model and upstairs/dowstairs model. One of the most important aspects of teaching kids about how the prefrontal cortex can go
      “offline” due to stress, trauma or fear is that it can make the behaviors of dysregulated classmates less scary and for those kids experiencing the dysregulation, less scary. Where can I go to find the most accurate ways for teachers to teach young children about their brain and dysregulation.?

  33. LIFE AT SEA | ehjohnson3 on September 29, 2021 at 5:03 am

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  34. Juan David Celis Torres on September 29, 2021 at 8:40 pm

    I’m biologist and was interested in this topic (human brain is something crazy) but I red “Mammals did not evolve from reptiles. Mammals and reptiles share a common fish-like ancestor” and that’s not completely true. There is a fossil record and also genetic clues that lead us to think of the emerge of mammals form reptiles. Of course, I don’t think humans have a “reptilian brain” or something like that, but evolution can only modify existing structures, so, my interpretation of the “reptilian brain” is more like we have this “natural behavior” thah kept us alive in nature and are related to the most basal origins of human brain. We are not now in danger because we changed our ecosystem and don’t have that kind of “problems” we used to have, but only few time has passed since we leave our natural world behind and our brain couldn’t adapt at this rate.
    Great article! Greetings from Colombia.

    • Sarah McKay on November 28, 2021 at 12:25 pm

      Thanks for your reply. I tend to agree … we do have natural behaviors that kept us alive in nature and are related to the most basal origins of human brain … it is the conflating of the idea that that is ‘reptilian’ and the inferences people draw from that I have issue with.

  35. JULIAN TAYLOR on December 20, 2021 at 8:30 pm

    We must endeavour to eliminate the “Reptilian Brain” term, first because it is incorrect, but also because it can lead to confusion and is often used by conspiracy theorists to justify their claim. For example the ridiculous reptilian shape shifting CT. I have often heard the Reptilian Brain used in conjuncture with the fact that many ancient cultures demonise or revere snakes, as far back as Adam & Eve, LOL, as adding some validity to their argument.

  36. Daniel Artander on May 3, 2022 at 10:59 pm

    Very interesting article. What are your views on Daniel Kahneman’s work? How do we reconcile the “wrong views” about the “lizard brain” with the instinctual and automatic functioning of system 1?
    Thanks.

  37. Katja on May 28, 2022 at 1:14 am

    I wonder what trauma therapist say about this new view on how we react to threats. For example fight, flight, freeze fawn and faint and it’s connection to the neurobiology of the body etc.
    And what Paul Ekman would say about emotions, core emotions that can be found in all cultures and have the same expression and can be understood by everyone whether they know the word or not, whether they can speak or not, everyone can understand it by looking at the face. Because those core emotions are not constructed by anyone but universal.

    • Sarah McKay on January 29, 2023 at 12:51 pm

      His ideas about emotions being universal are falling out of favour. I’d say he’d enjoy the hearty debate!

    • Anna on May 31, 2023 at 7:55 am

      As I have understood it, the labels (eg. ‘fear’) may be universal but the constructing processes (eg. what ‘fear’ means to me VS. to anyone else according to previous experiences & other ingredients) are different in each of us.
      Am I getting it right?

  38. Jon on June 7, 2022 at 8:57 pm

    Thank you,

    I had a wonderful time reading this article.
    Here is a little joke about why it’s called the reptilian brain.
    We were created by the reptillian s. A species that uses our reptilian brains for transplantation. LoL

  39. J. Mark Smith on October 29, 2022 at 2:51 am

    I think this — and Feldman Barrett’s — polemic against the “reptile brain” metaphor is good to know but possibly overprosecuted. The rather limited context the polemic comes out of seems important to note: its main application is to a philosophical debate about the naming and discrimination of emotions vs. their ‘hardwiring’ prior to language and culture.

    Also there are technical concerns about errors in physiology and oversimplification of evolutonary theory… all useful corrections, no question.

    But shift to a different context — that of neurodiverse and trauma-affected children — and the distinctions, even if the names shift somewhat, remain crucial for understanding of other human beings (esp. the non-middle-class, non-neurotypical ones), do they not?. There are certainly parts of the brain that are more “ancient” in evolutionary terms than others; there must also be parts of the brain that are crucial for mammalian (and avian) attachment behaviour (which is most definitely not just a metaphor!) and emotional regulation that are absent in the physiological organization of “lower” orders of animals (reptiles, fish, insects). My understanding is (see Stuart Shenker, for e.g.) that it is primarily the limbic system that is involved in attachment and emotional regulation.

    I can see how the whole schema of reptile-mammalian-rational human hierarchy is a problem (made worse when mixed up clumsily with evolutionary theory) and sneaks back ancient (like Aristotlean) metaphysics into supposedly modern science…. BUT once we accept that a phenomenon such as attachment is neurologically real in its involvement with emotion (does Feldman Barrett attempt to debunk that one?) — or once we see what developmental trauma does to a child’s capacity to manage its emotions and behaviours — it seems to me that we absolutely need some neurological language for understanding why it is that rational self-control so often cannot and does not prevail. For many of us, this is more important than abstruse arguments about the naming of emotions (fascinating as those may be).

    • Casey on October 7, 2023 at 1:18 am

      Well said. We all know that the triune brain model is a vast oversimplification. It helps, though, to have a simplified model to share more complex ideas with both children and adults in terms of understanding and reframing our own personal responses. It’s a good metaphor for the different STATES we can be in – states of engagement, fight/flight, freeze, and fawn responses, which certainly ARE physiological, and also have a later, more conscious interpretation. Many researchers and clinicians have discussed these 2 systems (fast/slow, system 1 and system 2, etc….essentially a built-in fast survival reaction and a slower, mor cognitive process).

      Effective therapists use psychoeducation with many clients to help them understand this, and where their responses come from, to help them look at themselves with softer eyes in order to get out of our world’s self-control mindset, which can ultimately be damaging because it can suggest that a client’s responses can be fixed by just changing one’s thought processes, and if and when that doesn’t work, they must be doing it wrong. I have many clients that come to me having had this experience, and helping them to see that our brains are trying to protect us (through fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses) but are just doing so maladaptively sometimes, helps them to be kinder with themselves, thus lowering stress, thus allowing more space for restorative techniques. They (children, youth, and adults) learn to ecognize that we DO have built in mechanisms to protect us, they learn to understand their responses, and they then learn to proactively recognize, reduce, and respond to their stressors so the automatic protective maladaptive strategies simply have to reason to occur.

      I also see that the article is more about the terminology, and we do get stuck in the semantics. Regardless of what we call it, we do experience states of active social engagement, fight/flight, and shut-down/freeze responses, and understanding them helps us all to heal and iteratively balance our body and brain systems.

  40. Daniel Sommer on October 6, 2023 at 9:47 pm

    The idea of reevaluating the reptilian brain model and moving beyond the simplistic “lizard brain” notion is intriguing. Your explanation of the nuanced and intricate functions of the brain’s evolutionary layers sheds new light on our understanding of human behavior and cognition.

    I appreciate how you emphasize the importance of embracing our evolutionary history rather than oversimplifying it. It’s refreshing to see a perspective that recognizes the interconnectedness of our brain’s different regions and how they contribute to our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

  41. Kimberly Phipps on October 7, 2023 at 12:03 am

    Great article, thank you!! I was thrilled when I discovered Lisa Feldman Barrett and now I’m thrilled to read these very practical suggestions for how to bring the concepts into coaching. I would love to hear more about if/how you may apply the four quadrants of arousal/pleasure into coaching in a future article.

  42. Catherine Tessier-Barbeau on February 29, 2024 at 4:29 am

    I believe that this article highlights the fact that emotional intelligence and conflict resolution skills are directly tied to one another. It also shows that our reactions to emotions can be learned and unlearned and that there is always room to grow.

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