Introduction to the Lizard, Monkey, Human Brains

There will be some scientific details in what follows. Feel free to ignore it. Unless you are doing research, the background science is not important. The concepts are. And you know what? I’m not a scientist, so don’t take my word on anything.

Again, like Maslow, this is a model, not a theory. Many models are useful, none are TRUE.

For our purposes you have three brains, which we will call the Lizard, the Monkey and the Human.

You have three different brains with three different priorities. They evolved to deal with different kinds of conflict. They work using different scripts. They also have a very clear seniority system.

The Monkey Brain

The Monkey brain corresponds to the limbic system, the emotional brain. The Monkey is completely concerned with social behavior, with status and what other people might think. The Monkey cannot distinguish between humiliation and death.

For much of our evolution, being cast out of the tribe was to be sentenced to a slow and lonely death. The Monkey knows this and fears being ostracized above all things. Soldiers could not be relied on in wartime if the fear of being laughed at as a coward didn’t override the fear of death.

You will see the power of the Monkey in dangerous situations. In natural disasters or major events such as the Twin Towers destruction, people were milling around, talking to each other, seeing what the other monkeys were going to do. In Baghdad, when an explosion went off near by, some people would hit the floor. Some (who had been there a while and could judge distance and safety) pretty much ignored it. Most looked around to see what they were supposed to do.

Because most of the conflict we experience comes from this level, the Monkey scripts drive a lot of current human conflict behavior.

The Monkey is concerned with social survival and status. It literally cannot distinguish between humiliation and death.

This is a key point in many very serious issues. At a low level, you can see it in action by taking a group of friends out bungee jumping. Fear of falling is one of the two fears that appeared to be hard-wired into human infants (the other is loud noises). In bungee jumping there is a small but real risk of injury. It usually takes a few minutes of cajoling to get a timid person to jump. A risk taker or adrenaline junkie will not need much encouragement but will usually hesitate just before making the leap. It takes an act of will, of some degree, to overcome one of the deepest genetic fears that humans have.

Afterwards, take the same group of friends out to a karaoke bar and try to get them to sing. Some absolutely won’t. A few will, if they have performed before. For most it will take alcohol, insults, teasing all to overcome a fear of… what?

What a bunch of drunk strangers will think? Not even that, because two beers later the drunk strangers won’t even remember your singing. Why is this fear, this imaginary fear of what other people might think so powerful?

Make no mistake, it is powerful.

In “Machete Season” Jean Hatzfeld documents a man in the Rwandan genocide who went out every morning to hunt Tutsi and hack them up—men, women and children—with machetes. The man said that the taunts and jeering and laughter if he didn’t join in were much worse, ‘like a poison.’

The monkey is powerful, and it explains some very deep, very dangerous puzzles in human behavior, conflict and trauma.

The physical injuries from rape often heal quickly. The psychic scars take much longer if they heal at all. Because the monkey brain’s view of how the world should work, the things that can and can’t happen, how people treat each other are shattered.

That people stay in a clearly abusive relationship is a puzzle, but not for the monkey. The monkey knows that it is still a relationship. That you have a tribe and a place, no matter how painful, is less terrifying than to be alone or to be uncertain of your place.

Listen to those words: painful, terrifying. The Monkey is the seat of emotions.

There are deeper emotions. The Lizard understands a pure joy in the physical world that rarely makes it to the conscious mind. The lizard also understands a primal fear of extinction.

The Monkey, however, lives on the social nuances of emotion.

It is less afraid of dying than of being seen as a coward, of shame. The Monkey turns honest grief into self-pity. Sometimes it turns Lizard fear into rage, and that can be a profound survival strategy, but the Monkey can also produce rage in response to an imagined insult.

It is not always negative. The connections with family, friends and our sense of belonging to any group triggers at the Monkey level. It allows compassion, patriotism, self-sacrifice and a desire to make a better future for others. The monkey is the one who can feel the concept of a community.

Sometimes, guided and influenced by the Human brain, it is rational and altruistic. Even when it is not, the Monkey mindfeels rational. This is a huge danger.

Studies have shown that when people who label themselves ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ are asked to explain their political views they feel logical. They sound logical. But their neo-cortex (where logic resides) isn’t even active. The activity is in their limbic system, their emotional centers. Their Monkey brains.

When you label yourself, whether by nationality or creed or political party or business affiliation or social club, you are in your Monkey brain. No matter how rational you feel, the label has the specific purpose of identifying you within a tribe and preventing you from thinking rationally.

Because, if you notice a pattern here, all of these obviously silly or inefficient Monkey Strategies (staying in bad relationships, hacking up others, fear of humiliation, labeling) do work. They just don’t work for you. They work to keep the groups together.

The Lizard Brain

The Lizard is the oldest part of your thinking brain, the hindbrain. Your survival instincts (particularly fight/flight/freeze responses) are triggered here. This is the part of your thinking brain most closely tied to your physical coordination, to your physical body and your senses. This is you, the animal.

The Lizard also has an affinity for ritual and rhythm. Habits are laid down in this part of the brain, as are the little rituals that become mannerisms. I always add a little dash of coffee grounds to the pot, no matter how carefully I measured it. A mutual friend starts every conversation with, “How’s it going?” Our black cat meows when he can see the bottom of the bowl. Habit and ritual.

Rhythm is often used to get in touch with this old part of the mind, as in tribal drumming and ecstatic dance. I noticed it another way, though. When a criminal was getting adrenalized, losing his ability to reason as he got angrier and angrier, closer to exploding in violence, he would often develop odd little tics that were often rhythmic—shrugging his shoulders or bouncing on his toes.

The Lizard’s only concern is your individual survival. It is utterly ruthless. It is also conservative and extremely resistant to anything new. This is why it is so hard, especially for people who have lived dangerous lives (such as victims of chronic child abuse) to change. The Lizard only cares about survival. No matter how hard life has been, how dangerous it is, or how clearly it seems that a bad ending is inevitable, all the Lizard knows is that you what you are doing hasn’t gotten you killed yet. Any change might.

This can be especially obvious in moments of extreme fear. When a rookie officer tries the same wristlock again and again even though it is not working; when an officer repeats over and over, “Drop the weapon, drop the weapon,” when it is clear he has no choice but to shoot, the Lizard is freezing them into a loop. The Lizard assumes it is a survival loop because it hasn’t gotten you killed yet…

Most people only experience the Lizard in moments of extreme terror, if at all. This means that they associate it with the Survival Stress Response, the cascade of stress hormones that flood your body under extreme threat. The stress hormones affect your vision and hearing, your memory, your coordination and your judgment. The stress hormones may make you clumsy, tunnel-visioned, functionally deaf, stupid, stubborn and incapable of remembering anything.

People who have only experienced the Lizard under these conditions assume that the Lizard is clumsy and stupid. Not so. An elite athlete “in the zone” is functioning almost wholly in the Lizard brain. Watch a kid playing a video game he or she has mastered and you see the lizard brain, totally absorbed in a task.

As the oldest and concerned with the very highest priority, survival, the Lizard brain has the chemical power to completely take over your brain. It can hijack you whenever it feels the need. This hijacking is usually (only?) triggered by fear of imminent death.

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The Human Brain

The neo-cortex, what we call the Human brain, is the new kid on the block. It is thoughtful, usually rational (but only as good as its information). It is also slow. Gathering evidence, weighing options and possibilities takes time. It tends to find a good solution, but usually one of the older sections of the brain has a decision all set to go before the neo-cortex has fully explored the problem.

Despite its slowness, its capacity for self-delusion and the ease with which it can be hijacked, the Human brain is extremely powerful. The Human brain solves problems. That’s what it does.

Using abstract reasoning (something the Lizard can’t comprehend) and juggling symbols (something the Monkey often can’t distinguish symbols from what the symbols represent—the probable basis for hypnosis and much of primitive magic) the human brain brings relatively new and unheard-of powers to solving problems:

How do we get these supplies over the border? Why isn’t the car starting? What do these symptoms mean? How do I reach my goal?

Only the Human mind can understand an abstract goal and work towards it. The Monkey and the Lizard, despite their strengths, are purely reactive.

The Lizard, Monkey, Human: Interaction

The Lizard, the Monkey and Death

The Lizard is only concerned with survival and outranks the Monkey, so how, as mentioned earlier, can there be soldiers? Why doesn’t the Lizard keep people from getting into the position of choosing between status and survival?

Because the Lizard cannot deal with abstract concepts. The idea that a mortar might hit you has no meaning, no immediacy to the Lizard. Once the Lizard has heard the whistle and seen an explosion, the example becomes real.

Then, though it might run, it also learned that the training worked. Once the lizard trusts the training, you can get a hyper-efficient soldier.

We like to think that our Human mind is who we really are. We like to think that we spend a lot of time there. Get over that.

The Lizard and the Monkey both work at a level below words. You can think of it as subconscious. Words are symbols, imprecise and slow. The Human mind is the master of words and symbols. Words have great power in explaining our actions to others. And to ourselves.

Research has shown, very consistently, that in many cases decisions are made subconsciously before the conscious (Human) brain has even finished evaluating the question.

If someone asks, “Which of these shirts do you like best?” Your subconscious mind will have chosen one before your conscious mind really starts to compare them. When you are asked why you chose one, your conscious mind will have an answer—an answer completely invented well after the decision was made.

Much of the time spent in our Human mind is spent making up reasons for what we already believe or have already decided. Sometimes we are explaining it to others. Often we are explaining it to ourselves. As long as there is no friction, as long as our explanations work well enough that our map of reality isn’t obviously whacked, our brains don’t care if our explanations are accurate.

That’s right. We only care if we are lying to ourselves if it gets us in trouble later. Frankly, the Monkey and the Lizard don’t give a damn about explanations.

You know this. Think of a time when someone made an incredibly stupid decision. Didn’t that person have a very reasonable sounding explanation? That’s the Human covering for the Monkey. Now think of a time when you made an incredibly bad decision…

Skilled fighting, self defense training, is a very human brained activity. Good training is logical. It works.

Unfortunately, the lizard doesn’t believe in training. Which means that on the edge of survival, you won’t use your skills. the lizard will push the human away, “Back off, kid, adults be talkin’ now. I been handlin’ this since T rex roamed the earth…”

Usually, the natural reactions have to fail before the hindbrain will relent and let you use the trained skills. If and when that happens, however, and when the hindbrain begins to trust the training… the hindbrain will back you a hundred percent and you will come to fight with both the skill you have trained and your efficient essence as an animal. that is levels beyond what most people have ever experienced, but it is incredible.

Except, if your monkey brain is triggered. Which it often will if you are facing another human. The monkey will not necessarily recognize a potentially lethal assault situation. It will see another human being. It will likely (unless you have ben raised or trained to not see people you don’t know as humans) want to respond as if this was an in-house problem. Which means the monkey will instinctively not injure (because that will weaken the tribe). The monkey will posture– trying to look big, squaring up, flexing muscles, possibly the worse possible way to stand in a fight. And when the monkey does hit, it will hit to communicate.

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Wrap Up #1: Communication, Violence and the Triune Brain

First of all, don’t get all weirded out by the triune brain theory. Yes, most psychologists don’t recognize its validity (always be suspicious of books on the brain written by famous astronomers) but it is a model that works and helps make other concepts easy to grasp.

Here goes:

There are three levels of your brain and they go to violence for entirely different reasons and, in most cases, the types of violence they trigger are completely different.

At the oldest level of your mind, the part that we share with most vertebrates (and hence we call it the Lizard Brain in Conflict Communications) violence is triggered by a fear of immediate death. This is the classic fight/flight/freeze reaction and freezing, (not fighting) is the most common. The fighting usually starts, in the animal world and in ours, when the threat actually bites. It is a deep part of your brain. It is not a part touched by your intelligence, your beliefs and knowledge of strategy and tactics or your training. If this level is triggered, it will be the blind flailing and maybe biting of a panicked animal. None of your skill will come into play.

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Wrap Up #2: Communication, Violence and the Triune Brain

We spend most of or time in our social/emotional brains. We think we are being logical and thoughtful. In reality, we are trying to stay in the good graces of an imaginary tribe and make sure that things never change (more on this a little later). The violence at this level rarely gets physical, when it does it is (with only two exceptions) designed NOT to injure. Social violence is all about sending messages: You are not one of us. You broke the rules. This is my territory. Treat me better. I am superior to you. Aren’t I cool?

Because of that, social violence has rules. It is designed not to injure (seriously, people, the over-hand punch to the top of the skull that even trained people tend to open a Monkey Dance with is far more likely to hurt your fist than the other monkey.) It requires the message to be acknowledged. That’s a big one. From spanking to execution, punishment violence requires a statement of remorse or our (the punisher’s) monkey brain is not satisfied and we want to escalate. When someone backs down from the dominance game at the lower levels of the MD but then says something insulting as he walks away, the dance is back on and worse.

This drives a lot of the way social violence happens: there must be a justification, and the threat will get in your face screaming insults hoping you will scream one back so that he can blame you. It starts eye-to eye (or in punishment violence sometimes in a submissive posture). The violence escalates from pure social (talk, from gossip to insults to threats) to display and then to pain, then to cosmetic damage. Almost never to serious injury or death. When it does go to death (only two types within the tribe) it is savage, a venting and a display. It is still communication.


Wrap Up #3: Communication, Violence and the Triune Brain

Almost every aspect of fighting this way is inefficient, if not stupid. Being in front of the guy? Using techniques that do minimal damage? Letting him set the end-game by submission signals?

This is the default value. Our minds spend the most time here. In almost any conflict with another human we will instinctively and unconsciously default to this value. It takes an act of will or experience to NOT fight socially. I have yet to see a training that overcomes this instinct (though many say they do– look at videos of force on force training from almost any school and you will still see these defaults.)

The human brain solves problems. It is intelligent, wise and can make the world a better place. Humans, despite their beliefs, spend almost zero time in this part of their brains. “No, not me!” Really? Everyone has a sure-fire plan to be (fill in the blank, rich or famous or solve a major problem). Almost no one does it. And the plans are good. If you were to make a plan (human brain) and simply execute it, you could make your life better at every level. The mechanisms are well known (read “Think and Grow Rich” for the blue print). They are extremely reliable and effective. Very few people do them.

Because everyone has a voice in the back of the head saying, “That will never work. Who do you think you are? What if you fail? People will laugh. What if you succeed? Your friends will resent you.” That voice is the Monkey Brain and its one goal is to preserve your place in a tribal structure that went extinct thousands of years ago. The monkey brain is older, more powerful and trumps the human brain.

This post isn’t about self-improvement, however. It’s about the flavors of violence.

Violence coming from the human brain is about solving problems. It is about gathering resources as safely and efficiently as possible. Your monkey brain wants to end the fight with the other monkey in a position of submission. Your human brain knows to start a fight with the other monkey in a position of helplessness. Violence from this level is not about winning. It is about subduing or destroying and there is no value in the other monkey knowing who did it or how. If they know how or who, you have given up information. You human brain knows that it never serves you to give up information.

(And right now as you feel yourself come up with counter-examples and what-ifs, taste the feeling in your brain. That is the Monkey, your limbic system, chattering using logic that sounds valid so that you can discount information that might weaken it. Savor the feeling so that you can recognize it later.)

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Wrap Up #4: Communication, Violence and the Triune Brain

Human level violence is quick, efficient. Close/hard/fast/surprise.

The resource/victim/problem never gets a chance. Either physically or mentally (a well timed threat works just as well as physical violence with fewer complications) the action is literally overwhelming. It is never about the threat as an individual or person. It is about solving the problem. Getting money for drugs to a robber or serving a high-risk warrant for an entry team.

Most people never, in their entire lives, break out of the grip of their own monkey brain to experience this. They know they can. They know how to. Some are told their training is all about this. Saying the words is one thing. Practicing the techniques (which boil down to cheating at an astronomical level) and giving yourself permission to do things that violate your monkey protocols… without those pieces it’s all just words.

You can utterly destroy bigger, stronger and better trained people… but you can’t outfight them. Those are qualitatively different things. And as long as you are in your monkey brain and can’t flip the switch (to either human for skill or lizard for ferocity, or both for something really special) you WILL be trying to fight as communication and, against a predator, you will lose.

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Rory Miller

“Force is a form of communication. It is the most emphatic possible way of saying “no”. For years my job was to say no, sometimes very emphatically, to violent people. I have been a Corrections Officer, a Sergeant, a Tactical Team member and a Tactical Team Leader; I have taught corrections and enforcement personnel skills from first aid to physical defense to crisis communication and mental health. I’ve done this from my west coast home to Baghdad. So far, my life has been a blast. I’m a bit scarred up, but generally happy.”