Failing to rein in our reptile brain

Brain out of box

Photo Courtesy of

by Jim Taylor

Originally found on Jim Taylor’s Weblog: Musings of Jim Taylor

The video camera caught him at it, shortly before Remembrance Day last November. A youngish white male in a black hoodie swiped a charity donation box off a counter. He lifted the whole box of poppies and the donation canister, glanced up at the camera, and calmly walked out the door.

It wasn’t hard to catch him. The police recognized him immediately. He had several previous convictions, and at the time of the crime was out on probation.

Kelowna RCMP have said that a mere five per cent of Kelowna’s population commit almost all the city’s crimes.

Which makes me wonder, why can’t people learn from their mistakes? Why do people convicted of possessing child pornography go back to it on the internet? Why do drivers get behind the wheel again, even after losing their licence? Why do stalkers defy court orders and keep harassing their chosen victim?


Ways of describing

A few generations ago, conventional wisdom blamed these misdemeanors on the devil — an external being who made people sin. Or on the doctrine of Original Sin, which postulates that because two mythical people named Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they condemned their descendants for all time to a predilection for doing wrong.

Then we abolished sin. We treated sin as an illness, whether of an individual or of society as a whole. Illnesses are treatable. Karl Menninger, founder of the famous Menninger Clinic, wrote a bestselling book, Whatever Became of Sin?

But sin — or stupidity — persisted.

 Four brains in one skull

Modern neuroscience offers some more rational explanations.

I know that I am oversimplifying this, but we human don’t just have a brain. We have four brains. Wrapped around each other.

The most primitive brain is the reptile brain, perched right on top of the spinal column. It handles most of the involuntary muscle movements, the ones that keep us alive. It’s also home to the Fight or Flight reflex – surprised by a challenge, we tend instinctively to retaliate, or to run.

Actually, psychologists say there are five F’s – fight, flight, freeze, feed, and, well, you can guess the last “F” word. Whenever those stimuli come up, our reptile brain reacts. Instantly.

Human infants have a reptile brain from birth, or sooner. That’s how they breathe, move their limbs, digest food, and cry for help.


“Higher” brains

Then there’s our mammal brain, the limbic system. Mammals have this brain; reptiles do not. It has something to do with giving live birth, and then with feeding and nurturing our offspring. So it thrives on bonding, relationships, and social networks.

The third brain, which the Buddhists call the “monkey mind” and psychologists call the neocortex, plays. It plays with facts, with alternatives, with ideas. It swings incessantly from this to that, refusing to stay put except in emergencies. It has a zero attention span — hyperactive. All primates have this brain; most other mammals have only some elements of it.

And then, finally, there’s the defining human brain, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that deals with purpose, intention, goals, and complex decision making. It doesn’t develop fully until past the teen years. The prefrontal cortex makes sense out of the manifold options served up by the monkey brain, makes deliberate choices, and controls – to a greater or lesser extent – the immediate demands of the reptile brain.


Too late!

But it takes longer to process a thought through all four brains. By the time the prefrontal cortex decides that stealing this donation box is not a good idea, the reptile brain has already grabbed  it. Or started that truck in the parking lot. Or pulled the trigger on the person coming through the door.

The perpetrator of a crime, or a series of crimes, can probably talk rationally about his faults. He’ll agree he shouldn’t steal that truck, take those drugs, assault that woman. But when the opportunity arises, his reptile brain takes over. By the time his prefrontal cortex tells him not to do it, it’s already too late.

A few years ago, Daniel Goleman’s bestseller Emotional Intelligence argued the merits of deferred gratification. The reptile brain doesn’t defer anything. It expects — nay, demands — instant gratification.

The reptile brain that we inherited from our evolutionary ancestors gives me a perfectly good explanation for why some humans constantly screw up. They’ve never learned to rein in their reptile reactions.

That’s no excuse for their wrongdoing. Nor does it offer an instant cure. But it offers at least as good a starting point for rehabilitation as medication and exorcism.

Jim Taylor is one of Canada’s best known authors and editors among mainline churches and denominations. He is the author of twelve books himself including The Spirituality of Pets (2006), An Everyday God (2005), Precious Days and Practical Love: Caring for an Aging Parent (1999), The Canadian Religious Travelguide (1982), Discovering Discipleship (with George Johnston, 1983), Two Worlds in One (1985), Last Chance (1989), Surviving Death (1993) republished as Letters to Stephen (1996), Everyday Psalms (1994), Everyday Parables (1995), Sin: A New Understanding of Virtue and Vice (1997), Lifelong Living (for the United Church’s Division of Mission in Canada) (1983), and The Spiritual Crisis of Cancer (for the Canadian Cancer Society) (1984).

He was the founding editor of the ecumenical clergy journal Practice of Ministry in Canada (PMC) for the first 15 years of its publication. He was for 13 years Managing Editor of The United Church Observer. A co-founder of Wood Lake Books, Taylor lives and works in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: Christian Life, Jim Taylor, People, spirituality, time

Author:Wood Lake Publishing

At Wood Lake Publishing we are passionate about supporting and encouraging an emerging form of Christianity, which is rooted in ancient wisdom and attentive to the movement of spirit in our day. Visit us online at


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: