I’ve learned a lot about the dual nature of the human mind in the last five years. In learning about the nature of addiction, and in learning about critical thinking, I have been introduced to the ‘lizard’ brain- that guy that sits alongside my rational Self at the steering wheel of this person.
My lizard wants to be fed, feel safe, be around others and mate, and be accepted. To achieve these aims he has VAST amounts of energy and strength to draw upon. When my lizard has what he wants, he lets me steer a while. When he doesn’t, I often have to wrestle the steering wheel from him- and I’m not always successful.
At first, I thought I’d love to be free of my lizard. However, the reality is that he’s the one who tells me I need to eat, alerts me to imminent danger, pushes me to socialize and fit in, and to defend myself, while my head is often in the clouds. The truth is, without him I wouldn’t survive.
Conversely, without rational me advising him, my lizard couldn’t handle indirect or longer-term solutions to satisfying his needs. In this world in which we live, food does not grow on the trees outside my house. I can’t just walk into a store and eat whatever I want, whenever I want, without consequence. I can’t just attack someone who upsets me or stands between me and my desires, or mate with whomever I please. Without my guidance, pursuing these needs would either lead my lizard to destruction or jail.
I need my lizard, just as much as he needs me. So, I have come to accept him.
After I accepted him, I started watching him a little closer, without the contempt I’d previously felt. I came to see how, when I find something that interests me or advances my interests in some way, my lizard is as attentive to it as I am. He may not understand it, but I think he senses that somewhere down the line, my interests will satisfy his needs. Like, when I get a good job- I see dollar signs, while he maybe senses more food, more socializing, more mating… He spurns me on, lends me the support and strength I need to achieve the goals I have.
I had previously tried to manage his presence and shut him up. I would make sure he was fed, safe, rested, and all the rest of his needs were taken care of. Then, when he spoke, rational me was already at the wheel, so I just ignored him. In the past, when he was unsatisfied about something, and at the wheel in pursuit of his needs, this person he was in control of would act ‘irrationally’ or in ways that weren’t always productive in the long run. So, it made sense to me- keep him happy, and I can ignore him, and keep this person ‘on track’.
Over time now, I’ve come to see that when he is relatively satisfied and I’m at the wheel, my lizard may still have something to contribute. He tends to react quickly to events and interactions. Like the-first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head quickly. So, if I’m already talking and reacting, I’m not listening to him, and I may miss what he’s saying. If I just keep the mouth closed for a few seconds, or stand still for just the briefest moment, I can hear him.
If I listen to my lizard co-pilot, he’ll tell me what he needs or thinks, and then I can consider both his needs and my own, and find something that satisfies us both. In killing two birds with one stone, I get to stay at the wheel longer and more frequently. As it turns out, he’s more than happy to let me steer if I’m getting the job done. In fact, all the energy he would have put into satisfying his own immediate needs if he took over, he gives to me.
When I work with my lizard, embracing him as an equal in value and importance, I discover that we are greater than the sum of our various qualities. I pursue my interests, while he tries to make sure they keep us healthy and safe in ways my head in the clouds is not always on top of. Together we seem to have more strength and drive than I thought we collectively possessed.
I had pictured my lizard brain as this gecko-sized creature, but I see now I had him all wrong. How could a little creature wrestle control of this person away from rational me? A little gecko couldn’t perform superhuman feats of strength in emergency situations. A little gecko doesn’t bite the heads off people who upset them (a gecko runs away and hides). A little gecko doesn’t have the strength to lend me to bike a 100km stretch, full-tilt, to become stronger and more than I am.
My lizard is no little thing. He is a dragon. He has my back, and I have his. I don’t want it any other way.