Rethinking the reptilian brain.

lizard triune brain myth

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Because the concept is widely discredited by neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists: the model is out-of-date and not based on contemporary science.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 it’s used variously to label the:

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, and 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.”

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.”

Emotions are not pre-wired, we construct them

From the perspective of neuroscience, the reptilian brain analogy completely 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, and more about how humans learn and even more about consciousness.

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

This theory proposes that a set of 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”.

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 is what emerges when certain kinds of 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.”

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 also 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 be feel threatened by a huge variety of events: predators, lack of food or water can cause us to fear starvation or dehydration; extreme low temperatures can cause fear of death by hypothermia; cancer diagnoses scares 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 of you who want to explore these ideas further, here’s a useful explainer if you’d like to read more on LeDoux fear research. And a meta-analysis testing Barrett’s hypothesis.

We label emotions based on context

It certainly seems like emotions are quite 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 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 that enables them to run fast and meet their particular challenge.

But who do we attribute ‘fear’ to?

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.

Words for emotions you never knew you had

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 3-year old watching an older sibling eating ice cream in front of them will most likely feel very sad. A 13-year-old, with their a decade of experiences 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 German’s 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.

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

Does it matter?

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 threat. 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 personally wouldn’t teach a concept that was flat-out wrong. And I like to give a little more credence to my students’ 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?”

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.”

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) with 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 by 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.

Brain anatomy

If you’re describing brain anatomy, and want to distinguish the amygdala from the hypothalamus from the brainstem, I’d 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 the architects of our thinking and behaviour, we are also the architect 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 practicing 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, 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.”

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35 Comments

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

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

  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.

  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.

  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!

  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?

  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?

  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.

    • 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.

  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?

  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!

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About Dr Sarah

I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.

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