The Reptilian Brain

Cheney Speaks to the Reptile Brain

by Thom Hartmann

"I am not unaware of the effect of the ridicule cast on this instrument of defence by those who wished for engines of offence."
- Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison referencing damage done to morale by jokes about the US Navy, May 21, 1813

It's Willie Horton all over again. The Bush family is subjecting Americans to psychological operations, only the level of sophistication and deception is an order of magnitude higher than it was in 1988. And it could turn the election, if not used effectively in rebuttal.

Here's how it works, and how Dick Cheney just used it masterfully:

We humans, being the product of a long evolutionary process, really have three brains. And, as the Bush psy-ops folks know, politicians who win campaigns do so because they speak to all three of those brains.

First there's the most primitive of our brains, sometimes referred to as the "reptilian brain" because we share it in common with reptiles like alligators and komodo dragons. The reptile brain has a singular focus: survival. It doesn't think in abstract terms, and doesn't feel complex emotions. Instead, it's responsible for fight-or-flight, hunger and fear, attack or run. It's also non-verbal - you can stimulate it with the right words, but it operates purely at the level of visceral stimulus-response.

The second brain is one we share with the animals that came along after reptiles - mammals. The mammalian brain - sometimes referred to as the Limbic Brain because it extends around and off of the reptilian brain in a dog-leg shape that resembles a limb - handles complex emotions like love, indignation, compassion, envy, and hope. Anybody who's worked with animals or had a pet knows that mammals share these emotions with humans, because we share this brain. While a snake can't feel shame or enthusiasm, it's completely natural for a dog or cat. And, like the reptile brain, the mammalian brain can also be stimulated indirectly by words, and is also non-verbal. It expresses itself exclusively in the form of feelings, although these are more often felt in the heart than the gut.

The third brain - the neocortex ("new" cortex) - is something we share with the higher apes, although ours is a bit more sophisticated. Resting over the limbic brain (which is, in turn, atop the reptilian brain), our neocortex is where we process abstract thought, words and symbols, logic and time.

When Dick Cheney recently took John Kerry's comment about sensitivity in the war on terror out of context and spun it for his audiences, he was performing a psychologically masterful bit manipulation of all three brains.

Only ridicule with a subtext of fear has this power.

"America has been in too many wars for any of our wishes, but not a one of them was won by being sensitive," Cheney said, firing first the thinking brain ("too many wars") and then the limbic brain ("for our wishes[/hopes/ideals]"). And then he went for the reptile brain: "...but not one of them was won by being sensitive."

The comment brought an instant response of laughter - an emotional and involuntary response, as Freud pointed out, that's the result of the neocortex thinking it's moving logically along in one direction (a discussion of too many wars) and then suddenly getting derailed ("but not one of them was won by being sensitive") from that thought. This sudden derailment - known among comedians as the "punch line" - causes the thinking brain to be momentarily confused and triggers a response known as laughter that comes involuntarily from the limbic mammalian brain. (This is why comedy almost always involves misdirection, like in the old Red Skelton classic, "I just flew in from Chicago...and, boy, are my arms tired!")

But then, in a brilliant coup de grāce, Cheney spoke directly to his listener's reptilian brain, the part that most powerfully controls our behaviors because it constantly is vigilant to maintain our survival. "Those that threaten us and kill innocents around the world," he said, arousing the reptilian awareness of threat, "do not need to be treated more sensitively, they need to be destroyed."

To reinforce this message to his listener's most primitive instincts, Cheney continued to invoke the word "sensitive" a half-dozen more times, always wrapping it in surprise and survival.

Not only is this among the most sophisticated of psychological warfare operations, in this case it was also one of the most immoral, since Cheney was quoting Kerry out of context and, thus, basing his entire premise upon what was essentially a lie.

But the deed was done, because all three brains had been touched.

No matter how much the Kerry campaign tried to argue to the thinking neocortex that his words meant we should be sensitive to the needs and values of our allies and not sensitive to our enemies, his response never reached the limbic or reptilian brains of his or Cheney's listeners. Kerry's response - "It's sad they can only be negative" - was one that only reached the thinking neocortex. It didn't provoke a laugh, driving it into the limbic brain, and it didn't address Bush/Cheney failures to keep Americans safe, the main issue of the reptilian brain.

The simple reality is that issues framed in intellect will never trump issues framed in emotions. And to have maximum power, those emotions must include the limbic brain feelings of hope and idealism as well as the reptilian brain instincts for survival and safety.

Of course, issues must make sense to the thinking brain, but if presented in a way that misses the other two of our brains, they will never motivate people to walk into a polling place and pull a lever or mark a ballot.

Interestingly, the most powerful tool to hit all three brains simultaneously is good-natured ridicule, because there is no possible way to respond to it. Ridicule touches the thinking neocortex by referencing an issue, but also touches the limbic and reptilian brains, where our most lasting impressions are stored and feelings are anchored.

The only possible response to ridicule is logic, which only touches a third of our brains and thus always fails to undo the ridicule's emotional impact.

Even God is not immune, as Mark Twain wrote: "No God and no religion can survive ridicule. No political church, no nobility, no royalty or other fraud, can face ridicule in a fair field, and live." History demonstrates well the truth Czech author Milan Kundera wrote: "Mockery is a rust that corrodes all it touches."

In 1948, one of the most well-publicized moments of the campaign between Truman and Dewey was just after Dewey had given a speech calling for "national unity" and Truman supporter and superstar Tallulah Bankhead went on national radio to ask, "Will all the candidates who are for disunity please stand?" She then dug the knife in deeper (all the way to the reptilian brain), implying Dewey wasn't really up to handling the post-WWII survival issues America faced, by adding, "The next thing we know he'll be endorsing matrimony, the metal zipper, and the dial telephone."

More recently, Reagan's famous, "There you go again," even though inaccurate, blasted through all three minds of the national audience watching his debate with Jimmy Carter, reducing Carter to a caricature of himself. Michael Dukakis was defeated by the Bush campaign portraying him as Rocky the Flying Squirrel in a tank, and by images of a black murderer Dukakis had never even heard of shown in Bush campaign commercials. Four years later, Dana Carvey's parodies of George H.W. Bush helped diminish Bush the Elder to an ineffectual buffoon in viewer's minds. And Dubya is doing it again with the "intelligence" ad when, after a clip of Kerry saying he wants to revamp our national intelligence systems, the voiceover announcer sarcastically intones, "Oh, really?"

Hitting all three brains with put-down humor is both relatively easy and can be devastating. When mixed with positive "vision" messages, it can be unstoppable.

John Edwards, for example, has crafted a message that speaks simultaneously to a voter's intellect (neocortex), heart (limbic brain), and survival needs (reptilian brain) with his "two Americas" frame. If his ticket is to win, John Kerry must do the same with every single issue in this campaign, while at the same time using "light hearted humor" (dripping sarcasm, like Teresa's "they want four more years of hell," is dangerous) to highlight Bush's failures and incompetence.

And if ever there was a candidate whose flip-flopping, fear-mongering, military desertion, and incompetence was ripe for ridicule it's George W. Bush. (A reality not lost by websites like Handled correctly, an advertising campaign that lightly ridicules Bush while clearly and accurately pointing out his failings could be devastating.

The Bush campaign makes extensive use - as conservatives have for decades (remember Newt's "word list") - of NLP, framing, and other sophisticated psychological techniques to take control of issues and influence the electorate. They've been known and used in advertising for a half century, and were first used in a big way in politics in the campaigns of Reagan and Bush the Elder.

If the Kerry campaign doesn't quickly figure out how to use ridicule to make these sorts of essential framing and piercing issues work properly, we may be in for a replay of the Bush/Dukakis meltdown. Which would terrify our reptilian brains, sadden our limbic brains, and short-circuit our neocortexes.

Thom Hartmann (, a former psychotherapist, NLP Trainer, advertising agency CEO, and guest psychology faculty member at Goddard College, has provided training and consulting to a wide variety of groups and agencies. The Project Censored award-winning, best-selling author of 7 books on psychology and 5 books on democracy (among others), he does a nationally syndicated daily progressive radio talk show.

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