SEALs, Lizards, Fish and Firefighters – Fighting the Brain Battle
By: Ryan Seeley
Feel like you might be suffering from ‘lizard brain?’ You are.
The more primitive parts of the human brain – the brain stem, cerebellum, and basal ganglia – are shared by lizards and humans. Our lizard cousins, like us, inherited these brain elements from fish to help handle basic body functions such as breathing, hunger, and various other survival needs. Most importantly, these basic brain parts serve the primal fight-or-flight instinct. (They also, by the way, handle mating…but that’s a topic for another time.) As well-known American author Seth Godin puts it, our lizard brains are “hungry, scared, selfish, and horny.”
How do we overpower this lizard brain?
As first responders, we’re often faced with situations where we must overpower our lizard brain instincts – the ones that tell us to run from danger and avoid situations that are frightening. Anyone who has dealt with the challenges of emergency rescues knows that heading into danger, rather than running from it, involves overcoming our most basic instincts. Our lizard brain can’t be allowed to win.
Fortunately, unlike lizards, we have evolved higher brain functions that can enable us to override primitive instincts. Although our spouses might have doubts from time to time, we are, in fact, smarter and more evolved than either fish or lizards. Humans have developed far more complex brain circuitry so that our lizard brain areas are encircled by a group of structures known as the limbic system. This system gives us the ability to regulate emotions – including fear and anxiety – and to influence their effects on our actions. We also have a cerebral cortex, which allows us to perform higher functions, such as planning, reasoning, and calculating. Together, these vital brain structures help us to control our primitive fight-or-flight instincts and make decisions that are complex. By contrast, those lizard cousins of ours simply respond by reflex and instinct.
Firefighting and the lizard brain
Firefighters are called upon to overcome their lizard brains on a regular basis, despite the fact that those instincts for self-preservation are strong – especially in high-adrenaline, dangerous situations. If we take a moment to let the base instincts pass, however, and use our higher brain functions, we can do what we need to as firefighters, regardless of the threats. Our higher brain functions give us emotions of love and compassion, as well as motivations that come from careful thought, which can overcome the lizard brain. Many people aren’t swayed by their higher brain functions, and focus on self-preservation rather than on the greater good and while no one can blame them, firefighters simply can’t operate that way.
As Aristotle once noted, the definition of courage is twofold: (1) recognition that a cause is worthwhile; and (2) that an individual faces danger with the full knowledge of what the potential outcome might be.
It’s important not to confuse courage with risk-taking. Neuroscientists would argue that risk-takers behave irrationally, while courageous people make the decision to take on challenges for the greater good, no matter how great the risk to the self. Scientists refer to the object of peril as a ‘decision point’ and label acting courageously as ‘overcoming fear,’ but what we’re actually doing is overcoming the lizard brain.
Is fear conquering you or are you conquering fear?
Conquering fear is neither simple, nor easily learned. There was probably no single event in your past that gave you the ability to overcome fear as a firefighter; rather your courage has accrued over the years. Your choices in each situation and the outcomes of every challenge you’ve faced have built your ability to do this challenging job. Researchers coin the development of this capacity for courage as: ‘making fear-overriding decisions over time.’ To a large extent, science suggests that when it comes to courage, we are more the product of our environment and experiences, than of our brain composition. We are simply not born courageous.
A special model of lizard brain
If you google ‘lizard brain’, you’ll find endless talks, blogs, and motivational speeches about overcoming fear. These are all designed to encourage normal people – i.e. non-firefighters – to resist the fears that prevent them from achieving their goals. Courage, in that context, involves taking risks in business and in their personal lives, not rushing into a burning building. Those folks have the luxury of taking time to mull over their courageous decisions, knowing their lives are not at stake. Firefighters aren’t afforded that luxury. When the siren goes off, you gear up to face the unknown.
Even when we, as firefighters, have learned to overcome fear, the lizard brain continues to assert itself, tempting us to run from danger – and it operates twice as fast as our higher brain functions. This means the initial response to a threat will always be the urge to run from it. The trick is to allow the non-lizard limbic system of the brain to tone down the fear response before acting.
U.S. Navy SEALs use four techniques to optimize the ability of the brain to overcome lizard brain reactions to danger. Firefighters can add them to our arsenal as we operate in the face of danger.
- Goal Setting: In the middle of the inferno, your lizard brain is firing on all cylinders. Subconsciously, you’re fighting to maintain your inner balance by keeping in mind goals that can range from getting home safely, to buying a new car, or, as Aristotle would suggest, seeing that your actions are for a worthwhile cause. Whatever your goal, focusing on the positive keeps you grounded in your task.
- Mental Rehearsal: Visualizing a challenge and mentally overcoming it helps you face down the real threat when it occurs. Plans may change the second an operation starts, but mentally rehearsing endless scenarios will ready you for any eventuality.
- Self-Talk: SEALs say that positive self-talk is encouraging and keeps lizard brain negativity at bay. Psychologists agree.
- Arousal Control: Nope, this isn’t what you think! In a nutshell, when our bodies undergo stress, we breathe rapidly, pushing oxygen away from our brains and into the areas we need for flight. Switching to deeper and longer breaths sends more oxygen to the brain, thus boosting our cognitive functions and helping us stay ready for the fight.
Firefighters are experts at overcoming the instincts of the lizard brain; however, having a few tools in our back pockets can help us remain in the fight when the going gets tough. Overcoming our lizard brains is quite simply what makes us who we are.
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