Selfish, Emotional, and Necessary: The Lizard Brain

The Lizard Brain

Evolution isn’t a straight shot with a goal in mind. It’s a long, involved affair that frequently leaves dead ends and evidence of its processes. One of the most common kinds of evidence it leaves are vestigial elements. These are a sort of biological residue of previous forms. Tailbones and similar structures qualify as vestigial, as they’re partial and no longer utilized by the organism. 

There are other elements, though, that carried over from previous forms that are still useful.

Enter the lizard brain.

The limbic cortex is the part of the brain that we call the lizard brain, because, as Dr. Joseph Troncale puts it, “…the limbic system is about all a lizard has for brain function”.  Troncale summarizes the functions of the limbic system as the fight-or-flight response, the need for food and sex, and the freeze response we sometimes get when we’re too scared to fight or flee. 

Here at TruScribe, we refer to the lizard brain often when we discuss the principle of motion. That principle informs us that it’s the lizard brain that causes the eyes, and sometimes even the whole head, to move quickly and follow movement. 

Given Dr. Troncale’s explanation of the limbic system’s functions, this makes perfect sense. Early humans had to be able to quickly discern the threat level of nearby movement. Misjudging the cause of motion could be fatal. Death by a predator or by starvation through a failed hunt awaited those who couldn’t judge motion effectively.

“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man…” – William Bernbach

This quote, from advertiser William Bernbach, goes a long way towards understanding why these insights into biology and evolutionary patterns are important.

How do you use the Lizard Brain to your advantage?

Bernbach encourages us to embrace the brain’s habits, instead of trying to force new patterns on an organ that has consistently operated the same way since time immemorial. That’s not to say you should not attempt to affect change in people’s lives and behaviors; it’s simply to say you should pick your battles carefully, especially when the combatant is the lizard brain.

What’s more, the amygdala, a key part of the limbic system, is responsible for more functions than the fear-centric, survival-oriented ones that Dr. Troncale describes, explains James Sullivan.  “It is really about processing the significance of events in relation to what the individual cares about at any particular given moment, through a biological lens,” argues Sullivan.

In other words, the amygdala ties emotion and meaning to all stimuli from the outside world, not just the threatening ones. That’s not the kind of feature we’d want to overcome or change; we can definitely see the wisdom in Bernbach’s advice with this fuller understanding in mind. 

The rest of the brain must value the amygdala’s multifunctionality quite highly as well. Sullivan points out that connections formed in the synapses of the amygdala outlive other damage a brain might suffer. This includes memory degradation due to conditions like dementia. 

How does this relate to content creation?

For the content creator, this shows that when you connect a learning moment to an emotion, you’re creating a connection that’s different, and in many ways stronger, than other learning connections. There’s a sizable body of work that recommends using emotionally-stirring imagery will increase engagement, and retention; this is biological validation of this idea.

Of course, there’s also a bit of warning to the lizard brain’s link to emotional memory. If you use poorly-chosen imagery or messages, and create a negative emotional reaction in your viewer or audience, it won’t be easy to erase those memories.

Be sure you know your audience.

Make sure your video, infographic, or presentation sends an appropriate message with the right visual reinforcement.

So, the lizard brain takes over when it witnesses motion, largely because its functions connect emotional significance to stimuli. These connections (which used to be life-saving) still form long-term synaptic ties that are virtually permanent. 

How can you use these lessons, as a business, beyond remembering to create content that promotes your message successfully and positively?

Heidi Haskell has a few suggestions for engaging your customer’s lizard brain that go beyond acknowledging emotional content’s potency. She suggests you appeal to their innate selfishness through frequent use of the word “You” and other language that speaks directly to the consumer or their perspective.

Fundamentally, the lizard brain only cares about itself.

When it looks for moving threats, it’s not considering the danger of that movement as it relates to the community. It wants to stay alive, and that means escaping predators and catching prey. When it makes emotionally-linked memories, it’s another version of self-centeredness. It’s not evaluating how others will feel, or the effects of the event on anyone else.  It remembers how it felt when this thing happened to it

The lizard brain’s predator/prey differentiation means that it’s also very good at noticing contrast.

Play on this by drawing contrast in your messaging frequently—you are better than your competitor; someone has a need, and your product fills it; “We are the best” language contrasts you with all other comers.  Appeal to the lizard brain’s sense of difference, and you’ll engage the whole of your viewer’s brain rapidly.

Key Takeaways

The lizard brain might not be the brain’s hot new feature, but it remains immensely influential in our perception, memory, and unconscious patterns.  Even if we can’t individually control our limbic systems when they are triggered and take over, through motion and other stimuli, we can understand the organ’s functions in general—and that’s a gift.

Take advantage of your knowledge of the lizard brain, and reach your audience on an entirely new level.  Design your content with motion, emotionally resonant images and ideas, customer-focused language, and high amounts of contrast. 

Create the kind of lasting positive feelings that will engage new prospects and retain current customers.  And in case it feels unfair to use biology in sales, remember: your competitors might be using the science already.  And since the lizard brain loves contrast, you’d better make it happy—get out there and do it better.