map of the brain

Frontal lobes versus the reptilian brain

I subscribe to Neil Slade’s newsletter. He sent a remarkable link the other day that illustrates the difference between the frontal lobes versus the reptilian brain.

The reptilian brain is a reactive brain. It kicks in when we’re frightened or angry. That’s why it’s called the reptilian brain. It doesn’t really think. It just reacts. The amygdala may be responsible for switching it on, but we now know there is such a thing as the happy amygdala that can activate our frontal lobes.

reptilian brain 4Fs

The link Neil Slade sent was an interview on NPR, so it’s almost mainstream news. The remarkable thing about it is that it illustrates frontal lobe activity over the reptilian brain. Here’s a fairly long excerpt to make the point:

RABDOU: I was standing beside my wife. And I just saw this arm with a long barrel gun come between us. It was as if in slow motion this hand – and then it just got really quiet.

SPIEGEL: The hand belonged to a man, medium height, in clean, high-end sweats. He raised the gun and held it first to the head of Michael’s friend, Christina, and then to the head of Michael’s wife.

RABDOU: Then he said…

KHYBER: Give me your money.

SPIEGEL: That’s Khyber, Michael’s daughter.

KHYBER: Kept repeating, give me your money.

RABDOU: Or I’m going to start effing shooting. And we believed him.

SPIEGEL: But there was a problem. No one had any money. So they started talking, grasping for some way to dissuade the man. They started with guilt.

RABDOU: What would your mother…

KHYBER: What would your mother think of you?

RABDOU: And he said something like, I don’t have an effing mother.

SPIEGEL: Michael remembers thinking, this is headed towards a very bad end.

RABDOU: Someone was going to get hurt.

SPIEGEL: But then one of the women at the table, this woman Christina, pipes up. She has an offer for the man.

KHYBER: She said, you know, we’re here celebrating. Why don’t you have a glass of wine (laughter)?

RABDOU: It was like a switch. He could feel the difference.

SPIEGEL: All of a sudden, Michael says, the look on the man’s face changed.

RABDOU: And he tasted the wine – and just said to him, that’s a really good glass wine. We had some cheese there, too. And so he reached down for the cheese. And then he put the gun in his pocket.

SPIEGEL: The man drank his wine, ate his cheese. And then he said something that no one expected.

RABDOU: I think I’ve come to the wrong place. And we were all like, hey, I understand.

SPIEGEL: For a moment, they all sat there together, the stars overhead twinkling, the sound of chirping insects in the night air.

RABDOU: And then he said something just so strange – just said, can I get a hug? My wife hugged him. And then our friend hugged him. Then he said, can we have a group hug?

Imagine what would have happened if Christina hadn’t offered the man a glass of wine? Suddenly he felt accepted. If they had reacted with fear, maybe they would all be dead. Instead, the incident ended with a group hug.

The tape goes on to talk about complementary versus non-complementary behaviour. Complementary behaviour is when you act as expected. Someone points a gun at you and you become fearful. Non-complementary behaviour is the opposite. You act in an unexpected way.

map of the brain

It happened to me once. I was out walking in Lahaina, Maui. Suddenly five big Hawaiians made a circle around me and starting pushing me. They said I looked like the guy who had raped one of their women recently. I didn’t react with fear. I got bounced between them a few times, but no one started punching me. Finally, one of them said, “This can’t be the guy.” They apologised and that was the end of it.

Again, if I had reacted, they probably would have assumed I was the guy. It would have ended badly for me. That was back in my yoga days and I simply didn’t feel fear. I was almost always living in my frontal lobes, but didn’t know it at the time. It was part of my meditation practice. When I meditated, I focused my eyes towards the point between the eyebrows.

I just wanted to share this story with you. What if we all used non-complementary behaviour rather than reacting with fear or anger? Maybe we would have more happy endings instead of war and hatred.