Why Your Lizard Brain Terrifies You (And What You Should Do About It)

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“The lizard brain is … fighting for your survival. But, of course, survival and success are not the same thing.” – Seth Godin

the amygdala and the lizard brainI once asked my friend Monica: “What would you do for a living, if you could do anything in the world?”

I expected her to pause, but she knew the answer immediately.

“I’d open my own clothing boutique,” she said.

It was a fitting response (no pun intended). There’s a positive feedback loop between talent and passion. We enjoy what we’re skilled at, and we’re skilled at what we enjoy. Monica loves clothing; every outfit she wears is a masterpiece.

Running a clothing boutique in our city of 5 million people is a simple, achievable dream. It requires hardwork, but the formula is stablished: Raise funding. Rent a space. Source material. Learn bookkeeping. Advertise.

But Monica thinks it’s a pipe dream. She makes zero effort towards it.

Monica holds a ‘respectable’ office job — $40,000 a year plus benefits in a quiet suburban office park – and this fall she’ll start graduate school.

And I’m scratching my head.

You see, it would be easy to write Monica off as “lazy” or “uninspired.” Of course she’s not chasing her dream job – she’s sitting on the couch eating Cheetos all day!

But Monica pours herself into this office job, even though it’s not what she truly wants to do. She’s investing thousands of dollars –- and hundreds of hours of study – to get additional training in her second-choice field.

At the same time, she hasn’t spent a single hour learning how to launch a little retail shop. She’s never called the owners of neighborhood boutiques and invited them to lunch so she could pick their brain. She hasn’t taken a single step towards her so-called pipe dream.

She’s not lazy. She’s ruled by lizard brain.

Lizard Brain Rules Us

There’s a tiny section of our brain called the amygdala. It’s about the size of an almond, and it’s lodged deep in the section of our brain that handles our memory, speech and visual cues.
The Amygdala - Why You're Ruled By Lizard Brain
The amygdala’s job is to provide us with our most primal instincts: fear, hunger and arousal. It drives us to fend off predators and protect ourselves from harm.

You know that tiny voice inside your head that says, “C’mon, a clothing boutique? That’s too risky. You’ll never make it. You’ll lose all your money. You won’t be able to pay the rent. Your employees will steal from you. You won’t have health benefits. You’ll starve. Your children will suffer. You’ll miss out on retirement benefits. No one will buy your airfare to conferences. And you’ll miss the company Christmas party.”

That’s your amygdala talking. It’s the creator of the fear response in your brain. Its job is to keep you safe from shark attacks, but its side effects include talking you out of your dreams.

The amygdala gets priority in the brain. Sensory input reaches hits the amygdala first, triggering a fear (or pleasure) reaction long before that same data gets a chance to reach the slower, more reasonable portion of your brain, called your frontal lobe.

If a grizzly bear is chasing you, this is a great advantage. Chances are you’ll start sprinting before you can even process why. But when you’re trying to overcome your fears and anxieties, it means you’re – quite literally – trying to re-wire the deepest instincts nestled at the center of your mind.

Goals Are the Antidote to Fear

The U.S. Navy SEALS know they need to select new SEAL candidates who are skilled at overcoming their brain’s powerful fear response. The human brain is hardwired to hightail away from danger, and a Navy SEAL’s job is to rush into danger and stay there.

So the Navy developed the Underwater Pool Competency Test, which is designed to see if a SEALS applicant can resist their most visceral fear response.
amygdala and lizard brain is afraid
Here’s how they do it:

First they put a SEAL applicant underwater for 20 minutes. The candidate breathes through SCUBA equipment.

Then they send someone to trigger the candidate’s fear response. The instructor shuts off the candidate’s breathing regulator and ties the candidate’s breathing gear into knots. The applicant can’t breathe.

Human instinct says that this is the moment you should swim to the surface of the water. Our brain is hardwired to want oxygen. Without it, we’ll be dead in minutes. Cue the fear. Cue the panic. This is the moment the amygdala is shrieking.

Many candidates fail the test at this point. They give in to their fears. They swim to the surface and gasp a nice, crisp gulp of air.

But the candidates who pass the test use one powerful mechanism in order to resist their amygdala and stay underwater: they focus on their goals.

“My goal is to untie this knot.” They focus on this thought single-mindedly. “My goal is to turn the breathing regulator back on.” No matter how loud the amygdala yells, they focus on their goal.

Then they break their goal down further. “Step one to untying the knot is —.” They execute. “Step two to untying the knot is —.” They execute.

Their amygdala is screaming, “breathe! Push to the surface and breathe! Get away from this predator who’s trying to kill you!” But the ones who pass the test are the one who let their frontal lobe – their rational, thinking brain – take command.

They still feel fear. But they don’t focus on it. Their goals are the antidote to their fear.

Want to Learn More?

Here’s a video of Seth Godin discussing the lizard brain. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, start at 9 minutes, 10 seconds and watch the rest.

Seth Godin: Quieting the Lizard Brain from 99% on Vimeo.

Thanks to Sources: CompanyFounder.com, Biology.about.com.
Thanks for Photos: Will Sisk (lizard photos) and Flickr user The Creative Penn (scuba photo)


  1. says

    I really don’t think I could turn my amygdala off very easily if trapped underwater. Actually, there are certain phases of my life where my amygdala was in overdrive, and other times, I think it was sleeping.

    It is funny, when you tell the story of your friend, the answer seems so obvious for her to find happiness. Drop the grad school on what she doesn’t want to do and spend the time instead on developing her dream. Maybe it is scarier if you are the only income in the house, then I am sure the risk is much greater.

    I hope your friend can find a way to her dream some day!

    • says

      @Kris — The answer seems obvious when we’re looking at someone else facing the situation, but it’s less obvious when we’re in the situation ourselves. She can find a million ways to talk herself out of it — “There’s too much competition. Everyone buys clothes at Target or at the mall — why would they come to my store? And where would I find the money to start one? And what about health insurance?” I hope she’ll bite the bullet someday. She’d love it; I know she would. :-)

    • says

      @Kris — Right now, she’s not ready to hear it. She’s getting little perks at work that she’s never had before — flights to conferences, hotel stays — and these new perks excite her. She’d have a tough time giving that up.

  2. says

    Also everyone thinks that they have the unique problem in the world. X’s idea was more easy to do but mine is not, Y’s chosen area has much less competition… I came up with a lot of excuses too and still do, I am still trying to learn not to think negatively but it is wired into my genome I guess. You need to have a don’t care attitude to get rid of this. What is the worst that can happen? and take it from there. I am not like that. I worry about every single thing, but luckily my husband thinks that way, so it sort of keeps me in check. Otherwise I will be like your friend too :)

  3. says

    This is very interesting, yet something that I’ve never thought much about. Why I stuck with a hated office job for so long was never a big question to me. I knew it was because I craved security, but I didn’t know the amygdala was responsible until now :)

  4. says

    Reprogramming yourself takes a lot of work. Nonetheless, it is often crucial to move to the next level. This post was a nice blend physiology/neuropharmacology. I’ll have to remember to find inspiration in the sciences a little more since that technically is my world professionally. Cheers!!!

  5. says

    I’m in software and I remember watching this when it first came out and totally relating. It’s cool b/c even though his example was about software, it does apply to most of our projects in life. This was a good reminder for me, thanks for taking the time to write it!

  6. says

    This is a terrific article! There are people who abandon their dreams because of fear and there are those who walk through darkness with full abandon. Hope that I could be like those navy seals who learned to focus on their task instead of their fear.

  7. says

    I’m really glad you came by to comment on my site. I really needed to read this post (and see that Seth Godin video). I definitely struggle with my lizard brain constantly. Just look at that novel manuscript I haven’t touched for about a year…

  8. says

    This is really fascinating. My boyfriend has somehow managed to shhhh his lizard brain. Mine seems constantly in overdrive. I have plans and ideas that I unfortunately know I won’t execute, because I overplay the risks in my mind. Hopefully I can live vicariously through my significantly less risk-averse other half.

  9. says

    Jumping off the cliff to do your own thing is a scary prospect! Finding a good support system (for me, this is the Yakezie network, and Mr.Thriftability!) makes it a little less overwhelming – but in the end you have to keep your head down and “Just Do It”… like the Nike commercial says. Excellent post – it made me remember why I’m doing what I’m doing in growing my own blogs and working from home.

    • says

      @Lisa — That’s great! Joining a network of support — and having a supportive partner — are very important keys. I couldn’t do this without the support and encouragement of my friends and family.

  10. Gita Vanwingerden says

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  11. says

    My lizard brain always wants doughnuts. I appease him my only getting two.

    Seriously, I always feel like I have to push past the “what do I have to do today” mode of work and ask myself “what will move the ball forward” before I get anything done. Lizard brain vs. goals indeed, albeit without the water torture.

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