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You’ve probably heard it said – maybe said it yourself – when some spell of anger comes across you or someone you love: “Oh, it’s just the lizard part of my (or her) brain acting up.” Most of us have been taught at one time or another that our brain is comprised of different parts reflecting different stages of how humans evolved over millennia.
The oldest, we are told, is something we inherited from our reptile ancestors driving all kinds of instinctive behavior. The middle, or limbic system holds all the shades of emotions we inherited from our mammal ancestors. And there on top, ta-da! Our crowning glory, the neocortex, seat of human intelligence.
Turns out, though, that that picture is a myth. Neurologists now tell us that our brains didn’t evolve and don’t operate in layers. Early brain scans seemed to suggest that certain activities are restricted to certain parts of the brain since those were the ones that lit up on scanners. It seems, though, that these low-power scans failed to pick up activity in much of the rest of the brain. More sophisticated scanners now show that most of what your brain does, from registering sensations like sight and sound to complex thought and emotion, involve your whole brain.
OK, so why should we care? Well, when we feel comfortable blaming our inner lizard for our behavior, it becomes a way of absolving ourselves of deeds that we’re not especially proud of, a variation on “the devil made me do it.” If we accept that every part of our brain is at play in all we do, even that bright and shiny neocortex, it might just prompt a little more humility and remorse for our behavior, truly a more highly evolved response that holds hope for our endurance as a people, as a species.
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister