How Your Lizard Brain Gives Away Your Secrets

Your head contains three brains. They’re all tasked with their own jobs to keep you alive. These brains have evolved over millions of years along with humanity.

"Brained" by Jose, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
“Brained” by Jose, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

The oldest of the three brains is the reptilian stem. It controls our primitive drives for survival, like our desire for food and sex.

To witness the reptilian drive to stay alive, check out this exciting video from the BBC:

Wrapped around the reptilian stem is the mammalian brain. It’s responsible for memories and emotions tied to events in our history.

This is Chapter 2 of PRL’s selection What Every BODY Is Saying by Joe Navarro.

The reptilian and mammalian brains, identified by Navarro as the limbic system, work together to control your body and influence decisions. Your limbic system also reacts in real time to your environment and stimuli, influencing your mood and thoughts. Remember, your body alters your brain as much as your brain alters your body.

Finally, you have the human neocortex. The neocortex evolved most recently in human evolution. The neocortex controls our reason and higher-order thinking.

"Head shot" by erat, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
“Head shot” by erat, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

You might like to think the neocortex is in control, but you’d be wrong. While the neocortex is busy talking and reasoning and lying, the limbic system is reflecting our true thoughts through our arms and legs.

People who are comfortable will display high-confidence behaviors.

People who are uncomfortable will display low-confidence behaviors. They will often use pacifying behaviors to soothe themselves.

Deep discomfort is seen as a threat. Our limbic system has three reactions to a threat:

  • Freeze: Movement attracts attention. When someone feels threatened, they’ll often freeze.
  • Flight: If freezing doesn’t work, people will try to leave a scene. If that’s not possible, they might turn away from the threat (avoiding), close or cover their eyes (blocking), or lean away from the source of discomfort (distancing).
  • Fight: The least-desirable response to a threat is to fight. This can be an argument, violation of space, demonstration of or physical aggression. It should be avoided, because it overrides your logical thinking in the neocortex.

We’ll dig into examples of all of these behaviors in the upcoming chapters. As we go, remember these are just signals and not certainty. When trying to read someone’s non-verbal behavior, we need to compare these signals against a person’s baseline behaviors, and decode the clues within context of the situation.

Think about a time when you had one of these three reactions, or saw one in someone you know. Maybe you caught your kid digging for a snack. Maybe someone caught you reading the PRL blog at work. Whatever it was, we’d like to read about it in the comments below!

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