Have you ever received feedback or a termination notice and all you wanted to do was run? A message so harsh that all your instincts told you to run home and hide under your bed? Or did someone ever push your buttons so badly you were ready to physically attack them? Or... have you witnessed this response in someone else?
We think of ourselves and humans in general as intelligent beings who think before they act. Our basic instincts however are always lurking in the shadows, ready to take over in a split second when they sense danger. Whilst these instinctive responses were absolutely necessary in Neanderthal times (and sometimes even still today), they don't always help us in a business environment.
Back in 2017, I experienced this myself. My manager at the time gave me some harsh feedback, which I took very personally. My immediate instinctive response was to leave the organization and resign overnight based on just this one conversation. Speaking to my coach the next day, I learned all about our reptilian responses.
Our three brains
The triune brain is a model developed in the 1960s by Paul D. MacLean, physician and neuroscientist. The triune brain consists of the reptilian (or lizard) brain, the paleomammalian brain (or limbic system) and the neomammalian brain. In the model, each brain is independently consciously operating and has been added on top of the other over the course of our human evolution. Whilst the model of three independently operating brains has been overtaken by modern neuroscientific research, the simplistic presentation of the three brains is helpful in understanding our responses.
In MacLean's model, the reptilian brain refers to our basal ganglia and is in control of our instinctive and self-preserving behaviors including breathing, sleep, heart-rate and our blood pressure as well as aggression, self-defense and ritual displays. It is the oldest part of our brain in terms of evolution. The term reptilian brain comes from a belief that the forebrains of reptiles and other small animals are dominated by the basal ganglia.
The limbic system is in control of the motivation and emotion involved in feeding, reproductive and parental behavior. The neomammalian brain is the cerebral neocortex, a part of our brains found primarily in humans and other higher mammals. This area of our brain is where our higher functions such as intelligence, language, spatial reasoning, abstraction and perception live.
Fight, Flight or Freeze
Our subconscious brain is constantly processing all our sensory inputs and helping us stay safe. If you were to accidentally touch a hot pan on the stove, you immediately retract your hand, long before you've had the chance to consciously process the data. If you had to first consciously think about the fact that the pan was hot and how you could respond, your hand would have long been burned. Our reptile brain drives our survival instincts, continuously working to keep us alive and free from pain. When it intervenes like this, our system gets flushed with adrenaline and our body actually diverts energy away from the neocortex (our thinking brain) and other functions of our body such as our digestion to be able to deal with the imminent danger.
There are three possible responses: fight, flight or freeze. Our previous example with the hot pan is a classic flight example, taking our hand off the pan is the safest response. These responses also keep us safe in cases where we're under attack, for example from a wild animal. We instantly decide to fight the animal, to run or we freeze (like a deer facing the headlights of a car), pretending we're dead.
Once the danger has passed, our neocortex will process and store the events that took place. The event is not only stored as a regular memory, but our brain also stores the event as a warning message in our limbic system. If you were severely burned, every time you see a pot on the stove, your subconscious will remember the previous burn and send out preventive warning signals, ensuring we stay safe in the future as well.
Our reptile brain in social situations
Unfortunately, our reptile brain can also take over in social and business situations. When we are being bullied at school or at work or when we receive harsh or very personal feedback like in my personal example, the pain we feel is very real. Our limbic system is trained over the years since our childhood to recognize such situations. And, even now as adults, when we end up in such a situation, our reptile brain is always on standby to take over and handle our responses for us, causing us to want to escape the situation, freeze at the scene or respond over-aggressively.
In her book "Daring Greatly", Brené Brown argues that the pain from social rejection and physical pain are processed by our brains the same way and the pain from social rejection can hurt as much as physical pain. She also shares a great example of how we could deal with the situation. She describes a woman named Caroline who in such situations of social pain would start repeating the word pain aloud. "Pain, pain, pain, pain, pain, pain." By doing so, she forces her brain to pause, to back out of the reptilian survival mode and back to the intelligent reasoning of the neocortex.
As leaders, we need to continuously grow and apply our emotional intelligence. It's key to be aware of these reptilian responses. All of us and the people we work with have different histories and backgrounds. What triggers a fight, flight or freeze responses will be different for every person based on their experiences. When you see the response in yourself or others, take a timeout. Give yourself or the other person the time and space to cool down and let the neocortex take over again. Only then can you sit down, analyze what happened and address the situation.