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In our struggle to restrain the violence
and contain the damage, we tend
to forget that the human capacity
for aggression is more than a
monstrous defect, that it is
also a crucial survival tool.
                    Katherine Dunn

Chemical Baths, Neural Pathways, Monkey and Lizard Brains

On this page:
Levels of Your Brain | Drugs, Drugs, Drugs |

You may think you know what's going on inside your head, but simply put, you're like a captain of a ship standing on the bridge. You may be able to see what's happening on the ocean in front of you, but there's a lot of stuff going on you can't see. This includes what's aft and -- most of all -- what's happening below decks.

These are things going on in your 'ship' that you not only take for granted, but in fact, don't even know are going on. And that includes drug use, animals running around and even potential mutiny.

You didn't receive your brain from some internet supply source.  Nor was it pre-packaged and installed by some divine super-being that put you above all animals. Your brain is the result of millions of years of evolution. Our species spent a long time fighting for survival and dominance against animals that were bigger, stronger, faster and better equipped than us. And when we were dealing with different species, we turned our attention to each other.

There's a whole lot of hardware that effects how the software runs. Not only that, but there's all kinds of chemicals, wiring and design modifications that keep the whole things chugging along.

What follows is an introduction to an extremely complex subject. It isn't a explanation of how you're going to react. It is layman's explanation of WHAT is going on inside you ... once you understand that, then you can begin to understand why it is so important and how it will effect your decisions and perceptions -- and by extension, your actions.

Simply put, You better learn how to work with these different aspects of yourself, your chemical/primate/unconscious/emotional patterns to stay in charge of your own ship.  Realistically, there's more to being a captain of a ship than just standing on the bridge. This page is an introduction to what's going on in the rest of the ship.  If you don't have an idea of what is going on inside of you can't control what you do.

And if you can't control what you're doing, you certainly can't control what is happening outside. While that may not sound like much of a problem, realize that there's a BIG difference between controlling external circumstances and influencing them. You may not be able to control whether or not someone attacks, but your out of control emotions can certainly provoke an attack.

Levels of Your Brain
Every night you go to bed with a human, a monkey and a lizard. No we're not saying that you are kinky. Nor are we insulting your significant other. What we are talking about are analogies of the different levels of your brain.

Although not exactly accurate, a useful rule of thumb goes:
          Neo-cortex = human brain
          Limbic system = monkey brain
          Cerebellum = lizard brain

  • The Neo-cortex controls rational thought, speaking and other higher brain functions.
  • The limbic system controls emotions and a whole lot more.
  • The Cerebellum controls movement. action and body functions.

Each of these levels not only were important for our species evolution, but they handle different jobs. You don't have to think about breathing because your lizard brain takes care of it for you. It also keeps your heart beating. (Oh good, one less thing to worry about.) It's also real good at telling you when to eat, have sex and run.

Your monkey brain patterns your emotional responses and helps guide you through social interactions. This is where our primate social behavioral patterns are rooted.  It could be said these patterns are less about 'psychology' than they are about the hardwiring of the humans to behave the way we do(1).

Technically speaking the monkey and the lizard don't 'think' -- at least not in the sense of rational and logical thought. While they do process, they are a lot more action and emotionally oriented. They're big on doing. And given the right stimulus they will jump behind the wheel and drive the bus.

The neo-cortex seldom totally abandons us. This is why even someone who is exceedingly drunk can still talk. But  that doesn't mean we are functioning in that part of our brain. Or that our behaviors are rational, logical or even under our conscious control.

Drugs, Drugs, Drugs
Here's an interesting bit of trivia. Any drug you can take mimics a hormone or chemical that your body already produces. Among the many other things it does, your body is a complex chemical manufacturing plant. When you're healthy, it's an in house process. What medicine does is it enhances or takes over when this in-house process malfunctions or can't keep up.

Not only our health, but our mental stability is strongly influenced with how well our internal chemical factory is working. When you drink alcohol, smoke a cigarette, do drugs, have sex, pet an animal and even eat, you are consciously choosing a course of action that affects the chemical balance within your body(2). In some of those cases you are actively introducing desired chemicals in others the chemical change is a result.

These changes in your chemical balance are going to effect all kinds of things -- especially in your brain. This brings us to a HUGE 'which came first the chicken or the egg?' issue. Which came first, chemical paths, neural pathways or emotions?

What we can for sure is what came next is your behaviors.

The big question is: Were those behaviors appropriate for the external environment?

Let's go back to the lizard and monkey brains. Another thing they are BOTH are big on is triggering the chemical baths that strongly influence our behavior. You get stimuli that those parts are wired for and BAM! instant hormone dump.

But that doesn't stop us from believing that we are thinking and being reasonable when they are 'driving the bus.' Oh yeah, and that monkey? He just did a line of cocaine before he got behind the steering wheel.

This is where our perceptions get skewed. Inside of our heads, we are convinced that "IT IS HAPPENING!" It doesn't matter what is actually happening, in our reality it is real. Except our 'reality' is as often a monkey having hallucinations as it is an accurate interpretation of what is going on in front of us.

Your emotions both create and are driven by these chemicals inside of you. This creates an ongoing cycle within you that if you don't control, it will control you.

Going back to the Captain of the ship analogy, if the engine shuts down it doesn't matter what the captain wants. It's what happens with the engine that is going to determine if the ship is going anywhere. In the same vein, if the engine suddenly gets stuck at full throttle and there's panic in the below decks, that ship ain't going to slow down no matter how much the captain yells and screams for everyone to remain calm.


Imagination As An Evolutionary Survival Trait
It is not uncommon in Western societies to try to suppress and down play the the imagination. Children are told to come out of their imaginations and focus on the 'real world.'

In light of what we are about to tell you, we find that rather ironic.

There is a theory in evolutionary psychology that 'imagination' is a more functional and versatile mechanism than 'instincts.'

According to this theory, it is imagination, not instincts that has allowed human beings to migrate to, adapt and survive to every continent and environment on this planet.

How? There is a crab that lives on the west coast of Italy. These crabs lay eggs on the beach and when they hatch, the young crabs unerringly find their way to the ocean. For years scientists tried to figure they did this. How do young crabs know to find the ocean?  How do they know which direction to go?

In an experiment a batch of eggs were taken to the east coast of Italy and allowed to hatch.

The hatchlings proceeded to try to march over the Italian peninsula. The crabs weren't heading 'towards the water,' their instincts forced to march west. As long as the species stayed on the west coast, this was a functional instinct.

You could take the crabs to the same temperate climate anywhere in the world and -- as long as you put them on the west coast -- the odds are good the colony would survive. But they'd die if put on the north, east or south coast. That's because their instincts MAKE them go west when hatched.

That is an example of instincts. It is the the ingrained compelling of an organism to perform certain actions to function in specific environments. If the environment changes, the species dies.

Imagination however, is another survival mechanism. Let's say your ancestors come from a seasonal cold weather environment. Someone way back when figured out:
This white cold stuff comes every year and when it does food is scarce. On the other hand, right now everything is green and there's lots of food.

It was imagination, not instincts, that started your ancestors gathering and storing food for winter. The rational brain may have come up with the strategy of storing food, but the imagination was what told us there was a need. And a need at a time when there wasn't(2).

We used the cold weather survival analogy to show you how powerful a survival mechanism imagination is over instincts.

If your ancestors were not from a cold weather environment, then the coping strategies they came up with in a different climate are entirely different. A strategy that was equally successful for meeting the challenges there. But again, based on imagining needs at a time when they weren't pressing.

Although the exact location of daydreaming is unknown (different parts all light up), some experts say where it happens is part of the limbic system. But, for the ease of explanation, let's say that imagination is closely linked with your monkey brain.

Your monkey brain has one hell of an imagination.

We say this especially in light of how many times our emotions are linked to what we imagine. Our imagination projects into the future. Our emotions spur us to act on what we imagine.

For example: If you see your child playing with  matches inside the house and near drapes, your emotional reaction is over what might happen (the house burning down). This instead of what is actually happening.

Contrast this with your actions if the drapes are already on fire. When imagination has become reality, THAT'S when your lizard brain kicks in.

While they are both very 'now' oriented there is a very important difference here. Your monkey brain is afraid of what could result from what is happening now. Your lizard brain reacts to the danger of what is happening now.

The problem with imagination, however, is that if left unchecked by practicality and experience, it can easily turn into fantasy. And fantasy often triggers the monkey brain and the adrenal response to send someone out into la-la land with what they think they know.


We also recommend you grab a cup of coffee and head over to the Adrenal Decay page. Because most of what you know about adrenal stress and scenario based training is advertising.

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1) This actually is still is psychology, but it isn't how most people think of psych. Most people think of psychology as software and changing programming. That IS one branch, but the bigger field is not only concerned with software, but also hardware and how they interface. Return to Text

2) Another bit of trivia, an aspect of physical addiction to a drug is that you've put so much of the mimic into your system that you've created a surplus. Enough so that your body stops manufacturing the original chemicals. This creates not only physical cravings, but chemical imbalances that strongly influence your behaviors. In the short term, this is why withdrawals are so bad. In the long term, current research indicates there has been physical rewiring of the brain during long term drug addiction. Return to Text

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