The Reptilian Brain

"Be Conservative Save the Dinosaurs"

The age of the mammals had arrived. Prior to that time, almost every available niche had been filled by the dinosaurs, leaving no room for competitors. They had dominated the planet for much longer than any other species before or since. Were it not for their mass extinction we may not have evolved beyond the stage of the rats that inhabit the hidden ways of our modern cities.

There has been much controversy as to the causes for the demise of the dinosaurs. General opinion is that it was as a result of a meteorite strike that altered their environment, although dissenters from that view point out that they took as long as 2,000 years to vanish from the scene. Personally, I fail to see any contradiction. Their long reign had made them very conservative, perfectly adapted to exist in an unchanging environment. A meteorite throwing debris into the atmosphere need only lower the earth's surface temperature by two or three degrees to cause massive changes.

Plants are hardier than animals, but although able to weather changes, they are not immune to them. Slowly they would have begun to evolve into something different, changing away from being the rich food to which the dinosaurs were accustomed. Relative to size, the dinosaur would have needed less of a daily intake than a shrew; but, its overall daily requirements would have been massive. It follows that a given acreage of land would support fewer creatures of their size.

Wider dispersal of individuals meant a lessening of the available gene pool. Fewer alleles lead to diminished diversification and the ability to adapt further; an endless loop. Their conservatism killed them. Conservatism is its own worst enemy in that by trying to preserve the present, it is really trying to preserve an unchanged past in an ever-changing world.

Whatever the nature of the global catastrophe that brought them to their end, for us it was the chance of a lifetime. The early mammals that lived at the same time are reckoned as being the approximate size of moles, living similar lives, hidden from sight. Whatever it was that stopped the giant reptiles dead in their tracks, it left the mammals largely unaffected, allowing them to inherit a rich and practically empty land.

The first mammals had come onto the stage some 30 millions beforehand, and now they spread out across the world. Constantly evolving, the mammalian line branched and branched again. Some five to eight million years ago a species of apes began to evolve into a strain that has led in a line to us.

So what does all this have to do with you, the modern world, and change? The purpose of this journey back to our beginnings is to stress the fact that not only do we carry material that has stood the tests of time, but that we also carry the genetic recipe for organs that we developed along the way, but which can now at times act against our personal interests.

Many of these organs and the drives generated by them, still influence our behaviour in ways that were valid millions of years ago but can now be anti-survival. A once useful organ is the appendix. At a time when we were herbivores, it formed a rudimentary stomach for breaking down coarse fibres. Nowadays it is a potential death threat.

A trait within us that is a two-edged sword, is for us to be creatures of habit. Any organisms that proved successful as survivors for several million, or billions, of years would naturally tend to become very conservative. It was only when climate or geography changed that they were forced to change and adapt. Forms that were locked into an unchangeable pattern disappeared from the story.

As life became more complex, so each creature needed the means to cope with it. Each of our several brains was formed in response to great changes in form and lifestyle. Each brain was a response to the need for an autonomous organ to oversee and bring order to an increasingly complicated organism in order to aid its survival in an increasingly complex environment. Originally, the brain was simply a cluster of cells reacting to incoming information regarding the environment.

When changes in the environment stimulated further growth of the brain, the older portions were not discarded or allowed to atrophy. Each addition was incremental. Largely, adaptation explicitly implied an adaptation of the way the organism 'thought'. New times, new brain growth. One major drawback to the result of this blind response to external stimuli is that each brain evolved under conditions that no longer exist, to cope with situations that no longer attain.

Each of these brains can now be seen as a separate, but inter-linked component. Each new brain evolved during the periods of external change. Massive changes in climate or ecology make the ultimate demand; change or go under. To cope with a whole new ecosystem, the organism has to become more complex. Complexity is added onto the existing structure.

To control and manipulate this more complex organism in its struggle to survive in a more complex environment, there developed another brain, forming above and around the preceding brain and taking over many of its duties. The old brains, with responses to situations that, until then had existed for millions of years, still continue to function, trying to force us to act in ways that are no longer appropriate. We now have the Hindbrain ( Reptilian Complex), the Mid brain (Limbic System), and the Forebrains (Neocortex). Each brain corresponds to its own evolutionary step.

"The Hind brain probably developed several hundred million years ago, under vastly different circumstances. The Midbrain system is reckoned to have evolved more than 150 million years ago. Above and around these are the two systems of the neocortex. This newcomer originally grew 30 or 40 million years ago. Its growth was greatly accelerated a few millions of years ago, when humans emerged." Carl Sagan, "The Dragons of Eden." [Pages 55-57.]

There is growing evidence that the two halves of the neocortex, the Left-brain and the Right brain, are indeed separate brains in their own right. They share, or duplicate, certain functions; but have capabilities that are exclusive to each. The brain is composed of these interconnected biological computers, each with its own special intelligence, its own subjectivity, its own sense of time and space, and other functions. Each contains greatly differing distributions of neuro-chemicals. We are obliged to view our external and internal worlds through the eyes of several, quite different mentalities. All but one of these mentalities lack the power of speech; but each of them contimues to influence our words and actions.

Each new brain developed as a response to changes in the surroundings. It made possible the survival of its owner by learning to adapt to those changes. Each newer brain grew to encompass the older brain. Those older brains have not surrendered their functions. The attempts by these older brains to govern the actions of the individual show quite clearly at which stage they evolved.

More than one mentality views the world through our eyes, and our world view is the summation of their opinions. They seldom have a singular attitude towards any aspect of our lives and of those around us. They are a cause of much conflict, internally and with our dealings with the external world. De Ropp referred to life as a combination of the Internal and the External Theatres. Perhaps sanity is only achieved when the same performance is being enacted upon both stages.

About 330 million years ago, when the first reptiles appeared in the jungles of the Carboniferous Period, they were the first of a newly emerged species. They were the first life form that was not entirely driven by the dictates of their genes; able to formulate and carry out decisions. By no means could they be considered great thinkers; yet, it would be unwise of us to sneer at them. We still carry that Reptilian brain within us, and its basic attitudes are a cause of much of the sorrow in the world today.

When we talk of people as being cold-blooded, or snakelike, or of shedding crocodile tears, we are referring to aspects of their behaviour that reflect the workings of the Reptilian Brain. It is not that these reptiles were without the same brain that we have. It is that the ratio of developed size and functionality were vastly different. Reptiles lack the warmth of emotions from which come the many types of love for those close to us. Cold-blooded are their actions.

Our early reptiles led a tough life, prey to larger members of their own kind as well as the amphibians from which they had speciated. That they have survived for 330 million years is a tribute to tenacity and cunning. It was not because of conscious thought that survival became more viable when one was a member of a group. When predators appeared, one had more chance of escaping if they were not the only meal on the landscape. A group could also defend choice feeding grounds, driving off foes. The weaker members of the group could hope to lose themselves in the crowd; and, when times were hard, the strongest group members always knew where to find an easy meal.

Paul McLean, in his model of the Triune Brain, has demonstrated that the Reptilian Complex plays a major role in the formulation of hierarchical structures, rituals, territorial behaviour and aggression. These traits most aptly describe the conduct of corporations and bureaucracies, commercial and political. Next time that you see a politician being interviewed on television, close your ears to their words and look past the smiling mouth. One will often find themselves looking into the flat, unblinking stare of a person in whom the Reptilian complex is playing a leading role.

Corporate loyalty, redundancy, and, "for the good of the party"; are modern expressions but the sentiments remain the same. The true purpose of any cause is the propagation of the cause. Individuals are used up but the cause goes on. When we find ourselves in cold-blooded pursuit of our own aims, we can be sure that the old reptile within us still has its clammy hands on the reins.

It is the richness of our human emotions that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, yet our emotional centre originally evolved long before we were recognisably human. The 'seat' of our emotions is the Limbic Brain; deriving its name from the Latin word for 'ring', because it grew to surround the primitive brainstem. At an early stage of our development, it was a handful of automatic reactions upon which survival depended.

When confronted by a threat, there was no time to make a conscious decision as to whether to fight or run. Faced by such a situation, the limbic system locked in. Those who automatically made the 'correct' decision, lived to pass on the knowledge to their offspring. Aeons of successful survival imprinted it into our genetic patterns. They still play a very large part in our reactions to new encounters. The root of the word 'emotion' is based in the Latin verb, emotere, "to avoid, or move away from". All anger is rooted in fear. The more pleasant emotions are also rooted in this system.

I listened to a Dutch police officer teaching others how to manage a person who is on the verge of panic. He was emphatic that the first thing that they should do was to reach out and touch the frightened person. He stressed the fact that words were useless in such circumstances. Intellectualisation, imposed from an external source, is small help in handling an emotional problem.

It is when our emotions are aroused that we most clearly see our links to those who came before us. Watch a tribe of apes who are under threat. They make short, erratic dashes in and out of the group, touching, looking into each others faces and clinging together for reassurance. It is identical to human behaviour under the same circumstances.

It is often remarked that the high percentage of genetic coding that we share with the apes, explains their human-like behaviour. Conversely, it also explains our all too often tendency to behaviour like apes.


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