The Reptilian Mind
For the infant, disruption of its biological homeostatic balance needed to sustain life is “felt” at a physiological level as life-threatening, which it is. Similarly, for the infantile reptilian-minded “adult,” anything experienced as a threat to the status quo can also be “felt” as life-threatening, as much as asphyxiation would be for an infant’s physical survival. The infant’s body fights with every resource at its command to preserve its state of homeostasis. Homeostasis is involved in every organ system of the body and no one organ system of the body acts alone. Furthermore, maintenance of our body’s homeostasis is a necessity throughout our lives.1
Problems occur, however, when babies develop into infantile “adults,” whose “reptilian” minds confuse the environmental status quo with their physiologically-dependent homeostatic needs. Consequently, they react to preservation of the status quo with an infantile intensity just as a feverish infant’s body would strive to restore its normal temperature. Our use of the term “infantile” is not pettily judgmental, but is the best descriptive word to explain how reptilian-minded people perceive the world and why they behave as they do, as we described in our blog on Donald Trump.
Because the reptilian-minded person is predominately reacting to internal physiological changes over “realistic” external sensory information during times of “homeostatic” disequilibrium, just as an infant does, their persistently stubborn behaviors (a reptilian-minded trait) can appear quite out of proportion to the way other people see a situation. For example, people who are not ritualistic (reptilian-minded) worshippers may be mystified by people who create “schisms” in their church over “silly” disagreements, such as whether to have gluten-free communion bread or not. It was also reported that church members left a church over a dispute regarding which coffee to serve. Consequently, something that “feels” deeply wrong (although the person likely cannot explain why, since the reptilian mind is pre-verbal/rational) can trigger a reptilian-minded person’s survival response to fight the environmental change “to the death.”2
The Triune Brain Model: Phylogenetic Regression and Extreme Aggression
In some people this reptilian-mindedness can support the most heinous acts of violence, sacred or secular, that we can imagine. So-called human behavior that is driven by the reptilian survival-at-any-cost mentality is capable of utter disregard toward another person’s life and well-being, as well as extreme aggression against others, as described in an excellent article3 by Kent Bailey.4
How are we to understand “adult” men murdering innocent babies “because” their crying interrupts a video game, or “because” the man is upset about losing $200.00 on a football bet, or “because” a man’s wife asked him to buy candy to appease the baby?
We believe that Paul MacLean’s triune brain model, as adapted by the quadrune mind model of consciousness provides the most elegant and realistic explanation for extreme aggression by human beings through the concept of phylogenetic regression. Phylogenetic regression occurs when our developing brains are afflicted by physical or emotional trauma, diseases, or other insults that prevent the fully functioning healthy adult Human brain from developing, which is needed for the spiritually conscious mind of a Human being. Consequently, we are left with a brain that can support only an evolutionarily pre-human mentality.5
Without the triune brain and quadrune mind models, we are left with fallacious “causes” of extreme aggression, such as satanic metaphysical forces acting on the morally ambivalent human being who must be protected by sanctimonious authorities. Or a serious problem like bigotry, which is attacked by bigoted anti-bigots, who only compound their feelings of mutual dehumanization as a co-equal pre-Human mentality with the bigots whom they despise. Or perhaps the most damaging explanation: people are just evil and there’s no hope for redemption.
But the quadrune mind model explains the reptilian-minded root of extreme aggression and shows us that there is a solution. It is the same solution to all the “evil” that people have done to each other: Heal the afflictions of the brain, of each other’s lives, so that we can become the proper stewards of this world, which our brains show us we are meant to be. In all things our proper course of action is to reduce suffering and increase healing: not to inflict further suffering in order to stop suffering.
We don’t have to count votes in an election to know that there are tens of millions of people in the U.S., and billions of people in the world, who live out their lives mostly dominated by their reptilian minds. We read about them, we know them, and much of the time we are them. People who are going through the motions of life can be described as automatons yet may violently, passively, or subtly, but in all cases, instinctively oppose anything that might disrupt the mindless routines and rituals of their “lives.” From “silly” demands, like serving one kind of coffee over another, to the extreme aggression of killing a baby, the dominance of the reptilian mind over the person’s behavior is a constant, which is a terribly painful lesson the quadrune mind has for us to learn.
But as Kent Bailey notes, if there is phylogenetic regression, there is also phylogenetic progression. Whether we are aware of it or not, we all make choices everyday that determine which direction our minds will head. Living with loving kindness toward all people is a good Human-minded goal to have.
However, first we must take the mentally radical step of letting go of our “bedrock” dogmatic beliefs—the “givens” of our life—that have previously gone unchallenged, or even mindfully acknowledged. It means destabilizing the status quo of our foundational identities—the very dogmas that have created an impenetrable barrier between us and everyone who doesn’t share them with us. The wall that has kept “them” out has also kept “us” imprisoned within. To breach this wall is not an easy thing to do. We would have to have a very good reason to take the risk.
It is not easy to start the path of becoming more Human-minded, especially if we are comfortable in our automatic routines. Still, it happens. Otherwise, evolution would never have occurred. And humanity would never have acquired an appreciation of empathy, compassion for the “other,” or universal love as spiritually valid goals, as they are now widely recognized to be by people throughout the world.
Postscript, March 27, 2023: Mykura, C. (2023). Epigenetics: How environment changes your biology (Course No. 10140). Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company. From the course overview: “Lively and authoritative, Dr. [Charlotte] Mykura explains how epigenetics is ubiquitous, influenced by activities like diet and lifestyle. For example, aging is largely an epigenetic phenomenon. So is our susceptibility to many diseases, as well as our body’s ability to fight infection. You learn how epigenetics governs the X and Y chromosomes, the miraculous process of building an embryo, and the transmission of environmental experience between generations. And you investigate how epigenetics evolved in the first place and where the epigenetic universe might take us next, especially in the realm of medicine.”
[Lecture 5 presents findings specifically from the developing study of neuroepigenetics, which “combines knowledge of epigenetics with the neurological functions of the brain.” The statement that, “Your experiences change your brain,” we already know. But the neuroepigenetic explanation of how prenatal or early childhood exposure to external stressors can lead to greater experiences of stress, drug addiction, and other “psychiatric” disorders as an adult is especially relevant to the quandrune mind model. Even more interesting currently is the neuroepigenetic relationship between cannabis and mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Finally, Mikura discusses the healing epigenetic effects of conversations with another human being, in this case as psychotherapy].
- Torday, J. S. (2015, September). Homeostasis as the mechanism of evolution. Biology (Basel). “[H]ow homeostasis can act simultaneously as both a stabilizing agent and as the determining mechanism for evolutionary change….
“Reducing evolution to homeostasis offers a fundamental mechanistic insight to the origin and causal nature of this process. It is no longer random mutation and Natural Selection, but adaptation of the internal environment of the organism to the external environment of the physical world in service to homeostasis. Ultimately, Selection facilitates the homeostatically-determined change resulting from the interaction between the organism and the environment….
“We now know that the epigenetic ‘marks’ acquired during the life of the organism are not all eliminated during meiosis, as had previously been thought, and that those marks are heritable and biologically active….
“Perhaps the reason why we go through the life cycle from zygote to zygote is to acquire epigenetically-heritable information from the environment and selectively integrate it into our genome. The ‘filtering’ mechanisms are those of ontogeny and phylogeny, providing both the short-term and long-term ‘histories’ of the organism as a means of monitoring the homeostatic relevance of the acquired mutations. Homeostasis is integral to morphogenesis, since the growth factor signaling mechanisms of embryogenesis become homeostatic mechanisms in the offspring. As such, they also can discriminate between adaptive and maladaptive genetic mutations that affect homeostasis, either indirectly through the developmental process, or directly through the regulatory mechanisms of physiology….
“[The] intimate relationship between environmental physiologic stress, homeostasis and remodeling goes all the way back to the inception of life…. The ability to recapitulate this process from one generation to the next, acquiring new ‘knowledge’ through reproduction and epigenetics allows the system to perpetuate itself indefinitely, or become extinct…..
“Allostasis clarifies an inherent ambiguity in the term ‘homeostasis’ and distinguishes between the systems that are essential for life (“homeostasis”) and those that maintain these systems in balance (“allostasis”) as environment and life history stage changes….
“If in effect life is a continuum that emanates from the unicellular state, then homeostasis functions at all levels of biology as a fractal, independent of scale. So the properties of allostasis are a higher-level expression of the same homeostatic principles expressed at the cellular, tissue and organ levels….
“[W]e have to see the organism as both its past and its future, not just as it appears in its current condition in order to understand epigenetic inheritance.”
- Shadid, A. (2002). Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, democrats, and the new politics of Islam. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. “As the last rays of sun lingered over the mountains [of Afghanistan], Khan stood up, looked out at the escarpment of the Hindu Kush and raised his hands to his ears. His voice carried the call to prayer….
“The simplicity of the scene overwhelmed me…. Khan’s call could have been uttered 1,400 years ago near Mecca, as the Prophet Mohammed gathered together his small following of outcasts….. The petty battles in Kabul over whether Islam sanctioned music, soccer, photography, videos or flying kites seemed part of a nightmare remote and removed from Khan’s reality…. Khan had found purity, a sense of meaning and the security of destiny….
“Islam spoke with clarity, offered simplicity and served as a familiar refuge in troubled times” (pages 19-20). [As discussed in our blog, Why Religion Doesn’t Encourage Us to Become Human, the ritual of religion can feel very comforting, particularly when we are dealing with uncertain times or environments. In fact, this is the positive side of the reptilian mind—when we are dealing with a trauma such as the violence Khan would have seen in Kabul, taking solace in reptilian-minded ritual temporarily may provide the security needed to start the work of becoming more Human. However, we should not remain in a reptilian-minded state indefinitely, as doing so robs us of the opportunity to find true spiritual fulfillment or human connection. As offensive to both Muslims and Christians as this will be, it is exactly the same reptilian-minded consciousness, driven by its need to preserve its status quo, especially under existential stress, that underlies both the pettiness of Islam’s dogmatism in the embattled Arab world and the Christians’ petty dogmatic arguments over coffee and gluten-free bread in a secularizing United States].
- Bailey, K. G. (1985). Phylogenetic regression and the problem of extreme aggression. Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 8, 207-223. “It is often said that human beings are the most violent creatures on earth, yet the very same creature that rapes, pillages, tortures, maims, wages war, and invents ever more deadly instruments of destruction is responsible for the profound artistic and technological achievements of our age…. A puzzling paradox….
“At present, few theories have attempted to explain the full score of the internal, immediate, momentary, and ‘real’ aspects of extreme violence, and the experts continue to search for answers external to the aggressor [emphasis added]….
“It is not a question of whether we are apes or angels, base animals or transcendent beings without an evolutionary history, but rather a question of how the schizophysiological components of our nature blend and interact with one another in an ongoing, dynamic symphony of complementary and sometimes contradictory motive forces….
“So far emphasis has been on the human being’s capacity to phylogenetically regress under threat, particularly threat to survival [emphasis added], but there is another side to the coin, that of ‘phylogenetic progression’…. In fact, most theories of development in psychology are of the progressive sort, where the individual gradually moves from lower to higher units of development by virtue of the combined effects of maturation and learning….
“The regression-progression model assumes that all behavior exists on a conceptual continuum [emphasis in the original] going from phylogenetically old, primitive, regressive, unlearned responses at one pole, up to refined neocortically-mediated, socialized, and distinctly human response at the other pole….” [In the quadrune mind model, it is the prefrontal cortex that is associated with our “distinctly” Human behaviors].
- Abstract of the above article from Kent Bailey’s research website: “Early and recent views of the concept of phylogenetic regression are summarized. A recently developed theory of phylogenetic regression and progression is discussed in some detail. The role of diminished neocortical control in the regressive process is emphasized. Parallels are drawn at several junctures with Paul MacLean’s theory of the triune brain. Once summarized, the phylogenetic regression-progression approach is applied to the problem of extreme aggression and senseless violence. The triune brain, the neuroanatomy of aggression, similarities between chimpanzee and human aggression, sex differences in aggression, ‘pleasure-in-aggression’, and extreme violence in ‘peaceful’ tribes are briefly discussed. It is suggested that some forms of ‘senseless’ human violence may represent phylogenetic regressions to predatory tendencies once normal and typical in our evolutionary forebears.”
- See page 9 of the Study Guide for an overview of these minds.