Introduction to the Levels of Your Brain

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.

In his excellent book Meditations on Violence, Rory Miller coined a term  describing behavioral patterns that lead to violence. He called it "The Monkey Dance."

We cannot say enough about Rory's book anyway, but that is nothing in comparison to how important the monkey dance concept is. It is an idea that cannot only save your life, but it will reduce conflicts and strife in your life.

And if a situation does go violent, it can do wonders for keeping you out of prison. You want to stay out of the monkey dance. That page quote tells you why.

A short explanation of the monkey dance is it's the primate conflict behavior patterns for social dominance that we -- as humans -- ALSO follow.

When we drop into our emotional/monkey brain -- although we think we are being rational -- we literally become excited monkeys. Watch some clips of monkeys in conflict and try to tell yourself you haven't seen the same behavior with humans too(1). This is not anthropomorphizing, human do the same behaviors, but with more grey cells.

What follows is a generalized layman's explanation of how your brain is put together and how it creates, affects and effects your behavior -- especially when it comes to conflict, aggression, fear and the monkey dance.

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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.

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MRI's and the Monkey Brain

Dr Drew Westen of Emory University (author of "The Political Brain") ran an interesting experiment where he took individuals -- who identified themselves as either liberal or conservative -- and put them into an MRI machine. The MRI was focused on their brains. Westen then proceeded to ask them political questions.

Interestingly enough, in both groups the part of the brain showed activity was NOT the rational, but rather the emotional parts (limbic system). There it was on the screen. That part of their brain is active, not the other part.

What is of equal interest is while these groups were diametrically opposed in political views, they both exhibited the same behavior patterns -- especially when it came to bias. For example they were extremely condemning of the opposition candidate for wrong doing and equally overly-forgiving when their candidate did the exact same thing. In neither case did the punishment fit the 'crime.'

Here's the real kicker. Despite the researchers looking at the physical proof that these people were being emotional, not logical, the participants ALL swore that they were being logical and reasonable in their 'thinking.' (News release).

Now you know why talking politics and religion can get so heated.

This study has incredible implications because it show how often someone's 'thinking' is emotional, not logical. And if we think we're being rational when we are operating in our limbic system, then how do we know we AREN'T following primate conflict behavior when we're emotional as well?

Thoughts Precede Emotions

Here is where we run into a "which came first, the chicken or the egg" problem.

While the monkey brain doesn't exactly 'think,' it does process emotionally. Where it starts getting complicated is in a generalized way 'thoughts precede emotions.' But not necessarily in 'the more I think about it the madder I get' sense (although that is part of it too).

A huge factor is 'how you think in the long term' directs your emotional responses.

We're not talking about a single thought here (e.g. the cat knocked the glass over). What we're talking about is your  long established thought patterns determine your emotions. How you think directs how you feel.

Imagine your emotions like water. These long term 'thinking patterns' channel your emotions (and thoughts) down certain pathways. And this happens without you consciously knowing it. Like rain running off a roof and down a drain spout, you only become aware of it when it comes gushing out.

Have you ever had an emotion faster than conscious thought?  Who hasn't? Someone says something and you're immediately angry. Then you have a moment to 'think about it' and you calm down -- when you realize that the person didn't mean what you thought he said. That is an example of emotional processing being guided down certain pathways and you consciously stopping the process.

Often however, people DON'T stop the process, they just react as if their feelings reflect actuality. Not only that, but they react as though their emotions are conscious and rational. (Have you ever told someone to be reasonable and they hysterically scream "I AM BEING REASONABLE!"?)

How we 'think' effects what emotions come out of us. And often our emotions are powering our behaviors. When we are in an emotional state, we can't tell whether what we are doing is appropriate or not because -- to us -- it seems like the absolute right thing to do given the circumstances. In fact, we often pat ourselves on the back for not taking it further.

Now to really muck things up, there is another complication. That is: How you think physically rewires your brain!

The 'channels' in your thought (your established way of thinking) actually physically alters your brain. In the same way that arroyos in the desert can be carved by running water -- and in doing so force water to run down these pathways -- there is evidence it happens in your brain too. You can wire yourself so you HAVE to think a certain way.

When these pathways are entrenched, like a flash flood in the desert, your thoughts and emotions will be dragged down these pathways. Whether you want them to or not!

Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence talks about 'emotional hijackings where this process drags people away from rational thought. But again -- and I can't stress this enough -- most people don't mind going down these paths because they think they are 'right.'

They honestly believe they are responding correctly to the stimulus that they are receiving and never questioning if what they are perceiving and interpreting is what is actually occurring  (e.g. if the comment they are taking as intentionally malicious and hurtful was, in fact, meant that way).

We call this "the monkey is driving the bus."

The Monkey Brain Swings Into Action

Let's use something we've already said to show you how this works. We said "the cat knocked over the glass." That painted an 'image' in the mind. Did you have an emotional response?


First off it is a fictitious event. However, it is based on an experience many people have.

Second, the statement itself was neutral. But, did YOU personalize it? Was it your drink you imagined being knocked over? Was it your property being damaged? Was it your cat -- that you care about? In which case your anger is tempered with your fondness of the cat. Was it a cat you don't like, in which your anger was increased. Or was it your neighbor's cat, in her house, her property being damaged and her drink -- so you really have no emotional investment at all?

Or, and this is common for people who don't have a cat, did you remain uninvolved emotionally knowing it was a hypothetical example?

We used this example to make an important point. That is we want you to realize is how closely linked your emotions are to your imagination.

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.

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Dominance, Status, Pride and Self-Worth

We have an entire section based on alpha behavior and how many people get it wrong. This misunderstanding of what leadership is the source of all kinds of conflict and stress when someone who isn't qualified tries to 'run' the group.

Another section that we highly recommend you visit is the Kinds of Violence that shows how violence occurs. And how often it is a tool to maintain boundaries and social order so everyone can get by.

Both of these topics strongly influence the following information.

Let us start by pointing out that human beings are social animals. By this we don't mean whether or not you like being with people or not. We're talking that your survival and the survival of everyone else on this planet depends not only on other people, but the collective knowledge of millions of years.

The example we use is if you take a wild badger and drop it into a forest anywhere in the temperate zone that badgers exist in, it's going to get along just fine. On the other hand, if you took a human being and dropped him or her naked into the forest, odds are good that within a week that person would be dead.

On the other hand, if you equipped and trained that person, then his or her odds of survival would increase. BUT where did that training, knowledge, equipment and knowledge how to manufacture that equipment come from? The answer is other people. Even if you taught that person how to nap flint and other primitive survival skills, that knowledge came from other people. This knowledge came from people who lived and functioned in groups and it was communicated to him by people who do so now.

This is why we say we NEED other humans in order to survive.

Now anytime primates live together in a group, certain issues arise. These issues also arise in human groups. But over and above basic primate behaviors further complications exist among humans. How these issues are addressed within a certain group is the basis for different cultures(3).

But let's take this down to a more 'survival is not guaranteed' level. That 'tribe' over there is a threat. They want the same resources that we need to survive. If we lose control over our resources, we are well and truly screwed. Worse, they are willing to work together to try to chase us away. In order to prevent that, we must at the least match their number of fighters.

So here is the primate challenge, how do we establish a hierarchy among OUR fighters, but without chasing them away or injuring them -- which would weaken our ability to hold off another tribe?  If you want to make it even more complicated, how do we train and encourage the aggressiveness needed to fight others, but keep it from turning on everyone in the tribe?

The conscious answers are things like aggressive sports (especially martial sports) and a code of conduct (e.g. machisimo, bushido and chivalry). These are closely tied in with issues of status and respect -- provided that the person follows the rules of the code. The evolutionary and unconscious answer is the monkey dance. A complex set of patterns that involve lots of yelling and screaming, threat displays, short clashes followed by more yelling, screaming and threat displays. A process that while everyone is adrenalized, the purpose is NOT to hurt the other person. That is another kind of violence all together.

Can the monkey dance morph into these other kinds of violence? You betcha, especially among young, selfish and angry males who lack understanding about boundaries and what it really means to be an alpha.

Where the subject really spins out into unpredictability is when the person falsely believes that violence will bolster his self-esteem and gain him respect. Such people can either become obsessed with the idea of violence or become so violent (and so often) that the only safe way to deal with him is to either kill him or lock him in prison. No matter what cause for violence they use their violence tends to become predatorial as they try to compensate for their emotional weakness.

The way we look at it, this takes the violence out of the monkey dance and into other modes of behavior. We tend to look at this behavioral pattern akin to a property. At first you can run onto it and, while you can stay there, you can also keep on running through it. This takes you onto a different property. There are no physical fences in your mind that keep you from crossing property lines.

However, Rory has a slightly different interpretation. For example, in Meditations on Violence Rory also has a term, 'group monkey dance.'  This is where, in order to 'prove' their allegiance to the group, individuals escalate their violence -- on an outsider -- to extremes. There is a complex dynamic here, not the least of which is that the 'group' must be present to witness the display of loyalty.

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Applying This To Conflict, Physical and Emotional Self-Defense

So how does all of this apply to self-defense, personal safety, adrenal stress, fighting, conflict resolution and de-escalation?

Man ... where DOESN'T IT?

Let's start with the fact that you're sitting there reading this means that for over two million years your ancestors managed to 'get up the tree before the leopard got them.' At least they managed to breed before this theoretical 'leopard' got them. Those that succeeded passed on traits that allowed the next generation to succeed in dangerous environments. Included in these traits being passed on is the ability to hand over the 'driving of the car' to the more survival oriented parts of the brain when danger showed up.

Now you may live in a civilized and generally stable environment, but that doesn't mean that your monkey brain does. You've got millions of years of not only evolution, but also evolutionary psychology, constantly percolating beneath your consciousness. And all it takes is a bump in the road to have it try to grab the steering wheel -- because it thinks its going to save you.

The problem with this is you have these 'giant guns' that are designed to allow you to deal with lions, tigers, bears and invading other tribes, but the biggest challenge most people face is emotional self-defense.

That's right. The worst threat the average civilized person faces is someone hurting his or her feelings. Or worse yet, self-esteem when the person feels he or she is not being respected. And it is definitely the most common way the monkey brain swings into action.

The problem with a monkey brain that isn't accustomed to dealing with physical danger is that it tends to accord emotional threats (or imagined ones) with the same sense of danger it would lions, tigers, et al. This can also apply to people with PTSD -- where once the danger was real, but not now. Yet the person still reacts as though a social issue is a matter of life or death.

If you don't want to be controlled by the monkey dance, then YOU need to understand how we are evolutionarily programmed to follow it. It is our default setting! But it is NOT our only setting. Instead of being sucked into an emotional hijacking, you want to be the one in control of yourself and your actions.

The problem with the monkey brain driving the car is it is entirely too easy to cross a line. And this especially true when it comes to crossing the line from self-defense into aggression, anger, illegal brutality, trying to gain self-respect through violence and fighting. While your monkey brain is telling you're doing the 'right thing' -- or that what you're IS self-defense -- there is a good chance that you're really doing is letting your monkey brain steer the car.

And then people wonder why they got into a crash.

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1) Here are some clips of primates in conflict. Watch them and see if you can't see the same dynamics in a high school fight -- especially the threat display, clash, further threat display pattern:
Monkey Fight 1
Monkey Fight 2
Monkey Fight 3 (gorillas)
Including rat packing Monkey Fight 4

2) Now you might argue that certain cold weather squirrels also store food, so doesn't that show they have imagination instead of instincts? Well no because, at a certain point in the summer, a cold weather squirrel will instinctively start to gather and store food no matter where it is (e.g. in a zoo in Florida). Return to Text

 3) The study of which gives us Cultural Anthropology. Using Theodore Sturgeon's "Law" about writing '90% of SF is crud.' we can look at different societies in the light of: There is a core 10% of issues that MUST be addressed by humans living in a group. How a large group of people handle those is the 90% that make up a particular culture.

A common problem, however, is when people mistake their 90% as the ONLY way to address the 10%. This especially applies when that local 90% is deemed as 'God's mandate.' Or Allah's. Both are serious examples of the monkey brain 'driving the car' while claiming it is 'thinking.' There are MANY ways to handle these issues, but the monkey brain has a preferred one. Oh yeah, while we're at it the same monkey thinking applies to so-called humanist ideology (politically correct thinking). In it's own way, it is just as irrational and unreasoning as a religious fanatic.

Marc MacYoung

Growing up on the gang-infested streets of Los Angeles not only gave Marc MacYoung his street name “Animal,” but also extensive firsthand experience about what does and does not work for self-defense. What he teaches is based on experience and has proven reliability for surviving violence. If it didn’t work, he wouldn’t be alive to talk about it.


He is considered by many to be one of the most analytical thinkers on the subject of  surviving violence and personal safety today.  He has taught police, military, martial artists and civilians around the world. His message is always the same: Hand-to-hand combat is a last ditch effort when other, more effective, preventive measures have failed.