Notes From My Lizard Brain

Photo by JJ Shev on Unsplash

Exploring the effects of ancient neural patterns (they’re millions of years old and they are in all of us)

In which I ramble about change, resistance to change, and the inevitability of change.

Yes, you have a lizard brain, at least part of one and it has a long history. Like ‘crawling out of the primordial muck’ history. And, without delving into the neurobiology (because I’m definitely not qualified to do that), that brain controls base desires: sex, food, drink, pleasure, self-preservation, and more. It’s the survivalist in your head.

Did you ever watch a baby crawl? How about an alligator? Same motion. Driven by a desire to get somewhere, maybe to find food or mommy. The problem I have with my lizard brain is it doesn’t seem to learn very well. Take martinis. I do, and I shouldn’t. I know this on many levels. Except those ancient ones. Desire tells me that if one is better, three is fantastic, even if it is not.

If you read any of my stuff you probably know that I am a professional writer and digital marketer, which involves a lot of writing. I’ve been doing both for so long that they are second nature to me, my imitation of first nature, which is that bit with the big jaws. My writing is not driven by a desire for recognition. Cold, hard cash maybe, but not fame. There is a place where I deviate from my jaded attitude regarding craft and habit. That is fiction, because it is so compelling and so mysterious. Ask a novelist where their stories come from and you may get some kind of mystical answer. Likely because we don’t know.

I’d like to spend more time in that mystical place and less time with Mr. Lizard but there is a factor that makes that a challenge: The lizard doesn’t do well with change. It likes a certain temperature, humidity level, and diet. Change those things and it fights or dies. Change is the enemy for that guy.

Where is this going, you might ask. Trust me, there’s a rhyme and a reason. When I wrote about my interest in doing psychedelics after 40 years away from them, I was writing about a concerted effort to change, in part because my warm blooded brain is not particularly happy about inertia. When we evolved, we evolved because somewhere along the way we got interested in something that was not a base desire; an idea, you might call it. Maybe we stood up to reach for some fruit and while we were up there we noticed that the distant landscape looked…interesting. Maybe dangerous but…interesting. So we took a little walk and never stopped.

Sounds lovely for us as a race, but individually when we get older we’re less likely to take that walk. Neural patterns have become set and harder to break out of. That pile of mushrooms that calls me is one tool I have to change that three martini habit. The other is to go into that distance.

Tomorrow, I am getting on a train with an Amtrak month-long Rail Pass. This thing allows you to travel around the country getting off when you feel like it and then back on when you’re ready. For the thirty day version you can get back on twelve times, which I think can get me across the country and back with a lot of interesting stops. I have never walked away from my life for so long, except in exploring creative endeavors like getting a record deal. And that was long ago.

Note: I took a version of that train trip. It did not turn out the way I expected, but it has served as the catalyst I sought.

We are in a terrible place of our own building. Political toxicity and the looming flood of climate change are breaking everything thought stable and respectable. Those with fortunes are retreating to the upper floors of Dubai and The Hudson Yards, where they can quickly forget those little people way down there, crawling through amusements like ants. But they don’t really understand what a category five hurricane might do to their aeries. I guess that’s one purpose of safe rooms.

The point of this rant is that resisting change for comfort is not a viable strategy for living, even when you’re older and more established. There is no ‘more established’. The stability implied in that statement is gone. I feel strongly that I have to get out there and start facing uncomfortable things, things I usually avoid. They never used to scare me.

I have two ways of writing here. One is pragmatic and consists of practical advice for writers and marketers. The other is random and, while it tries to hold onto a theme, it is given a chance to get off track. This is one of those pieces, by intent. It’s a kind of automatic writing where I follow the words and sentences in the directions they want to go, occasionally herding them back into my thematic line. To be honest, this is my favorite way to write these days (other than my fiction, which I don’t publish here), though it doesn’t always make sense. But when it does, I occasionally have a piece that breaks out.

I don’t think we do enough things this way. When you are new at something, like writing or music or painting, you have to learn within parameters. This discipline forces us to focus on the basics until they become second nature and we start to expand our abilities. Or we don’t and we end up becoming a broken record. I feel for many writers here whose great fear is not having enough ideas, or so many they can’t focus. This goes right to neural plasticity issue. We start out as wildly plastic brains. So plastic that no reality has assembled itself into an order. Babies learning an entire universe in a matter of years. Or at least a version of that universe. A tree is not a tree until pattern recognition kicks in and it coalesces into this thing universally recognized as a tree. All of this reality assembles itself during this extreme plasticity period. Then it proceeds to harden.

Art and things like meditation and psychedelics can reorient and melt that hardened perspective, but often only for short periods. Longer term fluidity requires work, work by our mammal brain, the one that stood up and talked. The lizard brain remains to make sure we eat, procreate, sleep, and survive physically. It does not care about plasticity, in fact I think it hates it or at least resists it. Why wouldn’t it? Neuroplasticity requires going back to that pre-awareness of the world, the baby’s gaze.

The first time I did LSD, as an adolescent, it crushed my ordered perspective. I was fortunate in that I had an extraordinary experience, an experience that still resides in me 50 years later, though it has dimmed to an intellectual painting of a memory. A cherished painting nevertheless.

These days I have a restlessness, a restlessness I see in the people I surround myself with. All kinds of cures are sought for this, from addictions like alcohol to the making of art or going out into the world on pilgrimages, though few actually think of them like that. When you’re young, making art and traveling without forethought are normal. The sadness that drives dissatisfaction as you age may be the fear that we have succumbed to comfort, comfort we derided back in the day. Youth is good at scorn. But I no longer find any rebellion in it, just a sadness for those who hold onto things like scorn, cynicism, and surety. But I’m rambling.

The lizard in me is losing its hold. That’s the goal.

Former software marketer. Former musician. Writer, nine non-fiction books, two novels, Buddhist, train lover. Amateur cook, lover of life most of the time!

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