When I Let My Reptilian Brain Take the Wheel

In the end, I moved across the country the way I usually do things: haphazardly (although I prefer the term freestyle).

My 27th consecutive Illinois winter had frozen all but the most reptilian lobe of my brain. Logic, reason, planning — they were all on ice. I couldn’t make up my mind about a condo to lease, or a job to apply for, or places to stop on the road. I wrote endless to-do lists. I charted timelines and compared moving quotes and made vision boards. Then I tore them up and took more naps.

The she-lizard in my head was in total control, and the lizard distills everything down to pain or pleasure, fight or flight, live or die. She gets a bad rap for this; everyone from Google to Derek Shepherd to Seth Godin warns us about the dangers of letting our reptilian brains run our lives. Sure, we want our lizard around when a drunk driver comes flying through the intersection, or when there’s a pack of wolves approaching our campsite. That primitive, reptilian instinct is what makes us brake, swerve, run, scream, punch, survive.

But we don’t want that fearful response all the time, do we? Most of the time, most of our lives, we’re not in any actual danger. Right?

The Lizard Said Run So I Ran

In the Gift of Fear, Gavin De Becker reminds us that this “primitive” part of the brain is constantly engaged in a cold-blooded assessment of everything and everyone around us. He asserts that we should not suppress our instinctive responses to people and events, but instead, embrace them.

My lizard has been right so many times that I’ve stopped second-guessing her.

When she says, “Break up with this guy,” I do it, even if he seems awesome, because I know her discomfort is my subconcious reaction to something I’ve seen or heard. I know (from experience) if I stick around I’m going to find out that he’s cooking meth in the basement or has a wife or runs an internet porn site.

When she says, “Don’t go in that store. Go home,” I do it, and only learn later that the place was robbed. I didn’t notice the broken window, the running car out front, the silence. But she did.

And when she said, “Drive,” I got in my car and headed for California, without a route, a job, an apartment or much of a plan. To my lizard, it was a life or death situation. I didn’t quibble.

Living in Mortal Danger

To the outside world, my flight seems illogical. There was nothing to be afraid of, after all. I was completely safe. I was standing on solid ground. Surrounded by good friends and old habits.

But my lizard — she knew the truth. She knew that by standing still, I was putting myself in mortal danger.

The danger of delaying my dreams for another month or another year or another decade.

The danger of letting self-doubt determine if and when I’ll write the next short story, the next travel post, the next novel.

The danger of frittering away my days on to-do lists and timelines and board meetings.

The danger of dying with my poetry still inside me.

Let the Lizard Take the Wheel

After 3 days of hard driving, I reached the ocean. I’m not sure what’s going to happen next but I’m not worried. That crazy lizard is watching my back. The experts say she’s controlling and territorial and hypervigilant. But she’s never let me down. I let her take the wheel all the time.

Image by Kay Bolden — Mission Beach, San Diego

Categories: Blog