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October 2005 after the first frost and summer grasses had turned brown.  The growth of winter grasses was delayed by the drought.

Stories and Your Reptilian Brain

Column #158

We all have a brain. What many people do not realize is that it’s three brains in one. The three parts are called the reptilian, limbic, and neocortex brains. They have many interconnecting pathways which mean they cannot operate separately. Yet one section can influence the others.

Politicians and marketers know how your brain works and they use that knowledge to their own advantage. Therefore, don’t you think it’s important for you to also understand how your brain functions so you have a better understanding of how their tactics work on you?

The most basic brain, the reptilian brain, is the oldest form of brain. It controls the most primitive survival functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature, balance, and fight or flight. It’s called the reptilian brain because it includes the main structures found in a reptile’s brain: the brainstem and the cerebellum. The reptilian brain is quite reliable but it’s rigid and compulsive.

The next higher up brain, the limbic brain, is found in more advanced mammals. It consists of memories both agreeable and disagreeable which are the basis for emotions. Its main structures are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The limbic brain gives us the ability to make value judgments, often unconsciously, that influence our behavior. For instance this brain remembers flavors which it associates with safe, pleasurable, or poisonous.

The brains of the most advanced mammals (primates, dolphins, humans, etc.) have two large cerebral hemispheres, called the neocortex, that have almost infinite learning abilities. It’s from these hemispheres that the human language, abstract thought, imagination, culture, and consciousness were developed.

Our awareness of self comes from the neocortx. It’s reflecting and analytical. We assume it is controlling our thoughts and moves. On the other hand we don’t realize what our reptilian brain is doing and how it can override our rational thoughts. Because of that, the reptilian brain has a huge influence over our behavior, emotions, and decisions. Maybe that’s why we often ask ourselves “What was I thinking?”

It takes considerable energy to exercise the neocortex which is why it’s lazy, slow, and easily depleted. It requires concentration in order for anyone to be rational and logical. On the other hand the reptilian brain is fast, intuitive, and associative. It requires no effort, is always on, and has a large capacity. This is why it’s so difficult to make rational decisions. The reptilian brain jumps to conclusions in an instant and the perception is--it’s always right as the neocortex is left in the dust.

Marketers and politicians know how much power the reptilian brain has over the neocortex brain. If their products or platforms are not the best, they will avoid any attempt to appeal to your rational brain. Instead they’ll try to motivate you by addressing your reptilian brain with pain, fear, emotion, ego, and contrast. Seth Godin says “The reptilian brain is hungry, scared, angry, and horny.” Think about it. Don’t most advertisements address the basic needs of the reptilian brain?

To appeal to the reptilian brain the message must:
●    Lower the pain threshold by offering low price, convenience, etc.;
●    Reduce fears with assurances of little change and guarantees;
●    Evoke an emotional response with feel good rhetoric or scaremongering;
●    Appeal to the ego by placing individuals in glamorous hypothetical situations;
●    Provide contrasts such as before and after images.

Politicians often speak directly to the reptilian brains of the masses in order to create mob rule. Promises of free stuff, less responsibility, and getting the bad guy is always appealing. Promising more work and self responsibility seems like drudgery in comparison.

Just like the vast majority of politicians (especially those that get rich in public “service”), the health food industry is not very honest. I think its primary marketing strategy is best described by W.C. Fields. “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with BS.”

The neocortex wants facts and figures. Yet too often the health food industry goes out of its way to avoid “Just the facts, ma’am?” Instead it tells stories, provides contrasts, stimulates emotions, appeals to ego, and ratchets up anger. Usually its stories are laced with trigger words such as healthy, organic, natural, hormone free, gluten free, nonGMO, antioxidant, good fats, 6+9+3 Omega fats, low fat, no sugar but syrups, no grain but nuts, and on and on.

Compare that with providing glycemic indexes, essential fat ratios, total nutrient listings and the percentages of nutrients for individual food items and relate them to the recommended dietary allowances (RDAs). One approach provides stories, the other provides actual scientific data. Look at the so-called Nutrition Label the food industry uses. It’s virtually worthless. Only by reading the ingredient label and knowing by heart the individual characteristics of the various inputs can a consumer make a guesstimate as to its actual nutritional merits.

Many health food marketers know that people are too lazy to engage their neocortex and their reptilian brains can literally divert them from making rational decisions. So if our rational thinking processes can be hijacked, what are we to do?

For starters, we must understand that the reptilian brain operates from triggers. When a trigger occurs, the reptilian brain dominates the neocortex resulting in subconscious irrational behavior.

Abuse causes stress. Even when the threat of an old abuse occurring again is remote, every stressful situation can become a fight or flight trigger that harks back to an old abusive situation. For instance for years Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can haunt many military veterans even though they are no longer even remotely close to a combat situation.

Even without stress, reptilian brains are frequently triggered these days. Road rage, vicious responses in social media, and most marital conflicts are caused by triggers. Instantaneous outbursts of rage, totally out of proportion to the “spilled milk,” are signs of a triggered reptilian brain. On the other side of the ledger a beautiful sunrise or sunset may trigger pleasure. The sight of an approaching old friend triggers joy. So the triggers aren’t all bad, but we need to be on guard for the ones that turn us into ugly people.

There are several steps one can take to counter the easily triggered reptilian brain. Pause and count to ten. Step away and take a nap or wait until tomorrow to respond. Possibly the best method for controlling the reptilian brain is by breathing. Breathing is a reptilian brain function. When your neocortex takes over and controls your breathing, your true self brain is fully engaged and that suppresses the power of the reptilian brain. Interestingly, the first skill taught to people who suffer anxiety is that controlled breathing will calm their flight or fight response.

Another trick it mindfulness. When the reptilian brain seems to take over, redirect your thoughts to more pleasurable events. Be thankful for your many blessings. Become skeptical of the message and its triggers and seek out and study more credible sources of information. Engage the neocortex and think hard about the topic. Become a student of life rather than a reactionary to triggers.

Numerous changes are required for people who decide to change to foods that are low glycemic, nutrient dense and diverse, with 1:1 balanced Omega-6 to Omega-3 essential fatty acids. To successfully make the required changes they must fully engage the neocortex to overcome the influences of the reptilian brain and the limbic brain. The lower brains want familiarity and they drive impulse buying. The lower brains want satisfaction now and they don’t want to plan ahead. They don’t want to adapt to new flavors. They yearn to eat the same foods as their friends and family. They are excellent targets for the health food industry’s many myths, phony health products, and incorrect nutritional advise.

We all make choices and which brains we use is one of them.

To your health.

Ted Slanker

Ted Slanker has been reporting on the fundamentals of nutritional research in publications, television and radio appearances, and at conferences since 1999. He condenses complex studies into the basics required for health and well-being. His eBook, The Real Diet of Man, is available online.

Don’t miss these links for additional reading:

Quieting the Lizard Brain by Seth Godin

How to Make Friends with Your Reptilian Brain by Edwina Shaw

7 Ways to Engage Your Customer’s Reptilian Brain by Heidi Haskell from Neuroscience Marketing

How to Market to the Reptilian Brain

Lizard Brain: The Keys to Brand Success by Sudio Sudarsan from Huffington Post

Stimulate Your Customer’s Lizard Brain to Make a Sale by Tim Riesterer from Harvard Business Review

Think with Your New Brain

Zero Negativity by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt

A Rose is a Rose: Shell Shock, Battle Fatigue, and PTSD by Matthew Worsman

Five Reasons We Impulse Buy by Philip Graves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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