Musical Scales: Why We Love The Lizard Brain

why we love the lizard brain image

Have you ever wondered why you compulsively bought that 7th guitar or went all out on that high note? Blame it on this ancient little corner of our brain, serving up those wild moments on a melodious platter. Let’s rock and roll into this captivating, quirky concept and discover the Lizard Brain and its connection to our primal impulses.

Estimated reading time: 16 minutes

Meet The Lizard Brain

When you need that knee-jerk, unrefined reaction, who better to trust than our trusty ol’ lizard brain? Directly from the VIP section of evolution, it’s got a habit of whispering, “Is the sky falling again? Must be Tuesday.”

When life serves us a little surprise (or ten), our prehistoric pal, Mr. Lizard Brain, is the first to jump into action, usually with the grace of a bull in a china shop. Accidentally spilled coffee on our pristine white shirt? Instead of a measured response, our lizard brain insists on a melodramatic gasp, followed by the age-old ritual of cursing out the ancestors of coffee beans.

Wi-Fi crashed during that crucial Zoom meeting? The logical lizard-inspired response is to panic, shake the router, and question the very fabric of reality. Why take a moment to breathe when you can spiral into a pit of ancient primal overreactions?

Our lizard brain is the unsung hero of over-the-top reactions, making every minor hiccup feel like the end of the world.

But there’s more to it than that!

The Story Of The Lizard Brain

In the bustling mid-20th century, a curious neuroscientist named Paul D. MacLean began to question the intricacies of the human mind. As he pored over existing literature and observed brain structures, he became particularly fascinated with the evolutionary trajectory of the brain.

MacLean started with a basic premise: If evolution had shaped our bodies, it had also molded our brains. Drawing upon this evolutionary perspective, he hypothesized that our brain was a tapestry woven over eons, with each layer adding to, rather than replacing, the previous one.

His research first led him to the ancient part of the brain, which he noticed bore a remarkable resemblance to the brains of reptiles. This section, responsible for base instincts and fundamental survival functions, became known as the Reptilian Complex, or the R-Complex. In MacLean’s view, it was the oldest part of our cerebral lineage, having existed for some 500 million years.

But Wait, There’s More

But evolution didn’t stop there. As mammals emerged, so did a new brain territory. MacLean discerned this region, enveloping areas like the hippocampus and amygdala, as the seat of emotions and certain social behaviors. He coined it the “Limbic System,” or the Paleomammalian Cortex, reflecting its emergence with the rise of early mammals.

Finally, atop this evolutionary scaffold, MacLean identified the most recent addition: the Neocortex or Neomammalian Brain. Appearing with primates, this part allowed for higher cognitive functions like abstract thinking, planning, and language.

MacLean’s triune brain model, encapsulating these three evolutionary layers, was groundbreaking. While it offered a simplified and comprehensive framework for understanding the brain’s evolution, it wasn’t without critics. As neuroscience advanced, many felt the demarcations of the triune brain were too rigid, with modern interpretations emphasizing a more interconnected and nuanced view.

Nevertheless, Paul D. MacLean’s triune brain concept left an indelible mark on neuroscience, fostering greater curiosity about the evolutionary story of our most complex organ.

Our actions can’t ALWAYS be blamed on our “lizard brain,” but it’s comforting to think that every time we goof up, it’s just our inner reptile taking the wheel, right? Because integrating complex neural systems in a nuanced way is just… too complicated for casual chatter.

Navigating the Lizard Brain and Finding Mindful Grounding

Look at us hoity-toity humans, all evolved and sophisticated! Guess what? Deep down, we’re still just shindigging with our “lizard brain”, dancing to those age-old primal beats. Prepare yourself for a not-so-enlightening guide on our “advanced” selves and the inner iguana that just won’t let go.

No surprises here; our modern mental highways still have a few dinosaur detours.

Uncertainty And Instability

When confronted with sudden, unexpected scenarios, many of us often default to the ingrained reactions of our lizard brain. This evolutionary relic hails from the earliest phases of our development and tends to prioritize immediate, instinctual responses over measured thought.

For instance, upon spilling coffee on a freshly laundered shirt, rather than calmly addressing the mishap, our instinctual response might be a sharp intake of breath or an immediate expression of frustration.

Similarly, if our internet connection fails during an important virtual meeting, the immediate impulse might be to panic or resort to hasty “fixes,” like shaking the router. While these reactions can often seem exaggerated or unnecessary in hindsight, they underscore the profound impact that our evolutionary history continues to have on our day-to-day behaviors.

The lizard brain, in essence, plays a pivotal role in coloring our reactions to the world around us, emphasizing the ever-present tug between our primal instincts and our more refined cognitive processes.

Purpose And Resolve

Let’s give this “planning ahead” thing a whirl, shall we?

How about setting a purpose or intent for once before we let our inner reptile take over and react? Yeah, it’s where we try to focus our scattershot lizard brain energies in one direction. But don’t start puffing your chest out just yet— even if we try to upgrade from our reptilian roadmap, no GPS guarantees we won’t end up chasing our tails.

The illustrious lizard brain, our ever-vigilant guardian of laziness and shortcuts, has a snazzy way of throwing a wrench into our best-laid plans.

Do you want to set a purpose for a task? Why do that when you can just wing it? The lizard brain is all about diving in headfirst because who needs a “why” when you have whims?

Planning to set an intention? The lizard brain trembles at the slightest hint of the unknown. “Might it go wrong?” it sobs dramatically, hoping you’ll abandon ship at the thought of a little challenge.

Trying to channel energy sounds exhausting, right? Why do that when there’s a perfectly good couch to melt into? The lizard brain is all for comfort, even if it means missing out on, well, everything.

Ready to focus? Wait! Did you see that hilarious cat meme? Or did you remember you might be mildly hungry? The lizard brain has an impeccable sense of timing for distractions.

So, you’ve taken the effort to set a purpose, but there’s no 100% success guarantee? The lizard brain is already rolling its eyes. It’s prepping a PowerPoint on why your idea might flop. Because, of course, it does that.

The lizard brain prefers procrastination over the light of action.

Our Mind’s Preconceptions

The reptilian part of our brain is fundamentally geared towards survival and instant gratification. So, when our preconceptions paints a nice picture of how life should be, the lizard brain gets restless. Lacking the foresight for delayed rewards or multifaceted expectations, any deviation from that scripted narrative agitates the reptile within, leading to unease and unhappiness.

The Childish Mind is like the lizard brain’s best buddy. Both detest discomfort and seek immediate pleasure. When things don’t go as planned, both the Childish Mind and the lizard brain react impulsively, leading to rash decisions or emotional outbursts.

While mindfulness aims to bring awareness to our thoughts and surroundings, the lizard brain prefers operating in the background, dictating our reactions without much conscious thought. When practicing mindfulness, we might become more aware of reptillian influence, enabling us to respond rather than react.

The lizard brain is a master of resistance. When things don’t align with how we believe the course of events should go, or when a new challenge emerges, the lizard brain sees these as threats or discomforts. Thus, it triggers resistance, urging us to procrastinate, avoid, or abandon tasks, all in the name of staying in the comfort zone.

The prehistoric sections of our brain, including the reptilian complex, aren’t particularly attuned to compassion. They lean more towards self-protection than self-affection. However, as we nurture self-compassion, we essentially contest the default mode of self-critique imposed by these areas. By exuding self-kindness, we mitigate their reflexive responses, paving the way for recovery and evolution.

The Infantile Mentality

Imagine your mind is like a situation comedy. There’s the inner child, that ever-whiny kid who hates change and would sell their soul for a candy bar. When life throws a curveball, they toss tantrums, demanding a refund from the universe.

Enter their sidekick, the Lizard Brain, our prehistoric pal obsessed with survival and instant reprisal. They’re the impulsive friend who whispers, “Why wait? Grab that chocolate cake slice NOW!” or screams, “Run!” at a challenging task.

When working together, they’re like notorious partners in crime. When something disrupts a cozy moment, the Childish Mind cries foul, and the Lizard Brain adds gasoline to that emotional fire, igniting reactions from zero to a hundred real quick.

Does that forbidden dessert tempt you? The Childish Mind drools over the memory of the last indulgence, while Lizard Brain pushes you to seize the treat.

Is the task becoming too hard? Our Childish Mind groans about how difficult it is, and Lizard Brain’s all about ditching it for some Netflix and pizza.

Did you lose your patience because you’re hangry? That’s the Childish Mind pouting and Lizard Brain taking the gloves off.

Are you weary of navigating this wild comedy routine? Take the time to call out the antics of this dynamic duo. With a bit of awareness, we can channel our inner director. Script responses that earn Emmys, not soap opera eye-rolls. Time to outsmart our primal pals!

Conscious Awareness

Embarking on the inner journey of our Mind? Quite the endeavor, especially when considering the ever-active Lizard Brain and our other internal characters.

The moment you decide to peek behind the curtain of your Mind, the Lizard Brain, ever on its toes, takes center stage. The Mind, ever the dreamer, often illustrates a world tailored to perfection. This sets the stage for the Infantile Mentality, our ever-hopeful inner child, wishing for life to match its bedtime stories.

Our Lizard Brain, always ready to spice things up, raises an eyebrow at any gap between our mental sketches and the real world. The outcome? A subtle inner monologue, amplified by the tag team of the Lizard Brain and the Infantile Mentality that nudges us, saying, “Maybe this isn’t for you?”

Here’s the plot twist: refocusing from the tales of our Minds to the unfolding scene in front of us. Even as the Lizard Brain and the inner child get ready with their commentary, an opportunity emerges to review the script. Observing the present, it might become evident that the world isn’t quite the melodrama they’d have us believe.

Acknowledging the cues from our Lizard Brain and the occasional foot-stomping of the Infantile Mentality gives us a more transparent lens. It’s akin to adjusting the focus on a camera and capturing the genuine beauty. Appreciating the here and now, without the influence of our inner cast, unveils a scene where reality shines through.

Recognizing the dynamic between our Lizard Brain and the Infantile Mentality? That’s the ticket to genuinely directing our life’s narrative, with a sprinkle of introspection and a dose of reality.

The Constant Hit Of “Feel Good”

Our good friend, the Reptilian Complex, always looks for a party. Those base instincts, survival, dominance, and covetousness, are all influenced by fear of loss and missing out.

Let’s chat about us musicians. We are sometimes lured to that cold drink, some tasty herb, or some wilder substance. We all face these temptations, but as musicians, we are constantly exposed to endorphins. That’s why we play music. We become used to those happy hits and just want more.

Here’s Why:

Seeking Pleasure and Avoiding Pain: You know how you crave chocolate after a bad day? Well, the Lizard Brain is all about instant gratification. And for some, a swift drink or smoke is the quickest ticket to Pleasure Town.

Stress and Anxiety: Ever felt stage fright? Multiply that by a hundred. Mix in grueling tours and critics, and you see why some might opt for a liquid courage or two.

Social Environment: Picture the music scene: guitars, amps, and historically, quite a bit of “happy juice.” Sometimes, it’s more than a stage act, with substances normalized or even put on a pedestal. I’ve experienced it as a regular part of the local scene.

Creativity and Exploration: For some artists, ‘exploration’ doesn’t just mean trying a new guitar riff. They might feel certain… enhancers… get those creative juices flowing. That might work initially, but with constant use, a person might be unable to play if they don’t have a buzz on. I see that a lot, too.

Brain Chemistry: Going beyond Mr. Lizard, our brain’s complex reward system comes into play. And boy, does it love that dopamine hit. Over time, these fun parties can change the brain’s structure, making the morning-after regret a bit more challenging.

Societal and Psychological Factors: Life throws curveballs—pressures, past traumas, and Tuesday blues. And sometimes, folks turn to substances for a bit of solace.

An essential note: not all musicians are partying like rock stars, and many who’ve danced with substances find their way back. The brain’s a complex beast, and understanding it, in all its lizardy glory, is crucial in offering the right backing track of support and treatment.

The Lizard Brain And Musicians

Joseph LeDoux

In the vibrant epicenter of New York City, Joseph LeDoux isn’t just a renowned neuroscientist; he’s also an accomplished author and a musician. When he’s not navigating the complex neural pathways of fear and anxiety at NYU or penning insightful publications, he’s wielding a guitar and crooning with “The Amygdaloids.” This uniquely named band pays tribute to the amygdala, the very brain region central to LeDoux’s groundbreaking research.

Yet, LeDoux’s exploration of the mind doesn’t stop at academic journals and lectures. He has a unique approach to disseminating knowledge: music. As the frontman of “The Amygdaloids,” a band comprised mainly of neuroscientists, LeDoux uses music as a medium to communicate complex scientific concepts. But why music?

For LeDoux, intertwining research with music serves several purposes. Firstly, music, being a universal language, can make dense scientific topics more accessible to a broader audience. Through catchy tunes and thoughtfully crafted lyrics, listeners might grasp concepts that could otherwise feel distant or overly technical.

Secondly, music is intrinsically emotional, and emotions are central to LeDoux’s work. By encapsulating research findings within songs, the emotional component of the content is emphasized, making the knowledge more memorable and resonant.

Furthermore, LeDoux’s endeavor is also a nod to the interconnectedness of arts and sciences. By showcasing how a rigorous scientific inquiry can inspire creativity and vice versa, he breaks down the conventional silos that often separate these disciplines.

In essence, Joseph LeDoux’s dual passion for neuroscience and music underscores a profound message: Science doesn’t have to be confined to textbooks or labs. By leveraging the evocative power of music, complex insights about the brain can be shared, understood, and appreciated in entirely new ways.

Lizard Brain Points

Ah, musicians! As one who’s attuned to the rhythms of life, the last thing you’d want is for your scaly inner self to hit a discordant note.

While our primal instincts can sometimes lead to genuine and raw musical expressions, there are times when it’s best to let the more refined parts of our minds take the lead in the symphony of our careers.

The “lizard brain” concept can actually offer some deeper insights into the challenges and opportunities faced by musicians, beyond the negativity and challenges, here’s a more nuanced look:

Performance Anxiety

The “fight or flight” response from our lizard brain can kick into overdrive before a performance. It’s this ancient part of our brain telling us we’re facing a threat, even though it’s just an audience. Understanding this can help musicians find strategies to calm pre-show jitters.

Creativity vs. Overthinking

Sometimes, a musician’s raw, instinctual creativity (akin to the lizard brain’s impulsiveness) can lead to the most profound and genuine art. Overthinking, a product of our evolved brain structures, might stifle this raw creativity. The trick is balancing instinct with refinement.

Risk Taking

The Lizard Brain, focused on survival, might discourage taking risks. But risk in music – trying a new genre, technique, or collaboration – can lead to breakthroughs.

The Practice Routine

The lizard brain craves routine, which can be harnessed positively. Establishing a regular practice routine and sticking to it can be beneficial. However, it’s crucial to ensure this doesn’t lead to stagnation.


Musicians often collaborate, and our primordial territorial instincts can sometimes interfere. Recognizing when you’re being possessive about a piece or idea and when to let go or share can lead to a more harmonious working relationship.

Criticism And Failure

Our primal brain perceives negative feedback as a threat, which can lead to defensive reactions. Recognizing this can help musicians accept constructive criticism more gracefully and use it for growth.

Motivation And Drive

The lizard brain’s drive for survival and dominance can be channeled into ambition in the music world. The hunger to succeed, to be the best, can be a powerful motivator, but it’s crucial not to let it become all-consuming or lead to burnout.

Emotional Connection

At its essence, music is about emotion. Engaging with our core emotions can lead to compositions that resonate on a deep, universal level.

Striking a Primal Chord: The Lizard Brain’s Encore

Wrapping up our musical journey into the labyrinth of the Lizard Brain, it’s clear that the primal beats of our ancient neural rhythms still profoundly influence our modern melodies. Whether it’s the irresistible tug towards immediate gratification or the raw, unfiltered emotions that fuel our artistry, there’s no denying the power this age-old part of our brain wields.

Yet, this very duality—where the raw, instinctual pulses meet refined creativity—makes music so captivatingly human. As we strum our guitars, pen our lyrics, or simply lose ourselves in a song, remember: it’s not just the notes that resonate but also the age-old dance of the Lizard Brain beneath. Rock on, Mack-n-Cheeze enthusiasts, and may your tunes always strike a chord deep within.

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