By: Ryan Seely
Neuroscientists would argue that risk-takers behave more irrationally… no matter how great the risk to themselves. Do you have a “lizard brain?” Well, you sort of do. The more primitive parts of the human brain — the brain stem, cerebellum, and basal ganglia — are shared by lizards and humans. Charmingly, humans and lizards both inherited these parts of our brain from fish.
For this context, it also serves the primal survival urge of fight-or-flight. (It also handles mating but that’s a topic for another time.) In other words, as author Seth Godin puts it, your lizard brain “is hungry, scared, selfish, and horny.”
Fortunately, unlike lizards, we have evolved higher brain functions that allow us to override our primitive instincts — if we put our mind to it. Although our spouses might question it sometimes, we are, after all, smarter and more evolved than fish and lizards.
Firefighters are called upon to overcome their lizard brains on a regular basis. Our lizard brain instincts for self-preservation are strong — especially in high-adrenaline, dangerous situations — but if we take a moment to let the instinct pass and use our higher brain functions, we can do what we need to do as firefighters. Our higher brain functions give us emotions of love and compassion and motivations that come from careful thought, which overcome the lizard brain. Many people are not swayed by their higher brain functions and still focus on self-preservation rather than on the greater good. No one can blame them, but firefighters can’t operate that way.
The U.S. Navy SEALs use four techniques to optimize the ability of the brain to overcome lizard brain reactions to danger, which can be used by firefighters:
Goal Setting: In the middle of the inferno, your lizard brain is firing on all cylinders. What you are likely doing subconsciously is maintaining your inner balance by keeping goals in mind. Whatever your goal, seeing something positive keeps you grounded in your task. Mental
Rehearsal: Visualization of a challenge and mentally overcoming it helps you to face the real threat when it occurs. By mentally rehearsing, you can mentally practice endless scenarios and you are ready for any eventuality.
Self-Talk: SEALs say that positive self-talk is encouraging and keeps the lizard brain negativity at bay. Psychologists agree.
Arousal Control: Nope, this isn’t what you think. This is about breathing. In a nutshell, when the body undergoes stress, we breathe rapidly, pushing oxygen away from our brain and into areas we need for flight. Switching to deeper and longer breaths gets more oxygen to the brain, thus boosting our cognitive function and helping us to stay for the fight.
Firefighters are experts at overcoming the instincts of the lizard brain. However, it’s always good to have a few tools in our back pocket to help us stay in the fight when it gets tough.
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