Why you should shush your lizard brain

Too many of us sabotage what we start because of our lizard brains, which are innately selfish and fearful.

More than six months ago my wife asked me to help her buy a new smartphone. Given who I am and what I do, you’d think this would be a relatively simple task — and it should have been. I knew that for her, an iPhone would be the way to go. She was comfortable with her existing iPhone, she texts with iMessage, videoconferences with FaceTime and she loves her iPad. Staying with Apple’s iOS operating system made perfect sense for her. Still, for months I didn’t take so much as a step toward helping her get her new phone. Why not? I’m not lazy. We say we need to finish and deliver a report and then we allow ourselves to be distracted by insignificant emails. We say we want to learn a new system but we don’t watch the training video. We say we want our firm to be successful but we sabotage the possibility of productivity enhancement by not changing the way we work.

That’s where the lizard brain comes in. This tiny section of the brain includes the brain stem and cerebellum. It’s the wee voice inside your head that tells you when something is too risky; it tells you that you’ll never make it, or that you’ll lose your money or your prestige. It’s called the lizard brain because it’s the most primitive, least-evolved part of the brain and it’s about all a lizard has for brain function. It is focused exclusively on survival.


The US Navy SEALs have developed the Underwater Pool Competency Test to see how effectively a SEALs applicant can resist the lizard brain’s focus on fear and flight. They put the candidate in a pool. The instructor turns off the breathing regulator and ties the breathing gear into knots so the candidate cannot breathe. The lizard brain is squawking: “Need oxygen! Swim to the surface or die!” Many give way to their fear and surface. The successful applicants, however, resist the lizard brain. Instead, they break down their goals into manageable steps and get to it. Step one: remove pack from shoulders. Step two: untie knots in breathing gear. They still feel fear but they don’t focus on it. Rather, they act.


Bestselling author/disruptor Seth Godin discusses the lizard brain in both his blog and in a wonderfully produced 18-minute video, Quieting the Lizard Brain. The basic message: it’s easy to start something, but the key is to finish it. Too many of us sabotage what we start because of our lizard brains, which are innately selfish and fearful. As we come close to our goals — and this is especially true if those goals challenge the status quo — the lizard brain pipes up with rationalizations to stop, so we hold back and never finish.

In a previous column, “A Peek Into Our Plentiful World” (September), I talked about all the choices we now have. It’s great to have options, but the problem is that we have too many choices. Our job is to quiet the lizard brain and ignore it.

The next time you need to upgrade your notebook or you are implementing new policies and protocols to take your department paperless, recognize that we all feel fear. Just don’t focus on it. Set goals and push ahead. As Godin says, “The lizard brain is fighting for your survival. But of course, survival and success are not the same thing.”

As for my wife, she went with the iPhone 6S. I’m slowly learning that in some cases, survival is best achieved when I listen more closely to her and ignore my lizard brain.