Who is in charge of our minds? The lizard or the poet?

lizardbrainWe all know how fear feels. And most of us probably don’t have to think too far back to remember the last time we felt fear. Maybe the boss was acting funny that day and you felt in danger of losing your job. Or maybe you were driving, thought you knew where you were going, and suddenly found yourself lost. Whatever the cause and whatever the setting, fear involves a high degree of activity in a particular part of the human brain, called the amygdala, often referred to casually as the “lizard brain.” Every human has one, and while some people are more conditioned than others to have an active amygdala, every one of us owes our existence in large part to this tiny part of our brains, for it is here that our survival instinct gets the most “air time” in our brains.

At the other end of the spectrum is the cerebral cortex, the site of our inner poets. Here is where all of humanity’s refined judgments and accomplishments of the imagination are mustered: our dreams, our hopes, our plans. Our tolerant “best self” is here: the part of us that sees subtle shades of complexity and wants to understand more clearly. The part of us that listens, understands, forgives.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the survival instinct isn’t subtle. It’s easy to forget that we exist today only because our distant ancestors outcompeted a lot of rivals. Our brain’s automatic judgment mechanisms have kept us alive: when the tiger jumps out of the bushes, it doesn’t matter what’s special or unique about the tiger. What matters is that it’s a tiger. Our lizard brains direct us to run away or to stay and fight — and to do it NOW!

This fundamental duality of humankind has provided fodder for philosophers, theologians, and artists of all stripes down through the ages. In the last decade of the 20th Century, a scholar by the name of Milton Bennett brought this duality powerfully into the budding field of intercultural communication. One of his most famous essays opens with:

Intercultural sensitivity is not natural. It is not part of our primate past, nor has it characterized most of human history. Cross-cultural contact usually has been accompanied by bloodshed, oppression, or genocide.[1]

Now, early in the 21st Century, we live in a world of immense complexity, coming into contact every day with people who look different from us, talk different from us, dress and act and eat different from us. This is especially true at I-House, as it has been for over 84 years. So we need to be ready for our lizard brains to be activated, and we need to keep asking ourselves how we can work together successfully when the lizard brain holds such power over our thoughts and actions.

Every last one of us is part lizard and part poet. True progress for our species depends on honoring our poet.


 [1] Milton Bennett, “Towards Ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity.” In M. Paige (Ed.) Education for the Intercultural Experience. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1993, pp. 21–71.

About Jason D. Patent

Jason is the inaugural director of the Center for Intercultural Leadership at International House Berkeley. His career spans the education, business, and non-profit sectors. He has spent over ten years living and working in China and is passionate about helping China and the U.S. to understand each other better. Jason holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in Center for Intercultural Leadership (CIL) and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Who is in charge of our minds? The lizard or the poet?

  1. doropatent says:

    You do such a great job explaining this vital dichotomy, Jason! Everyone needs to learn how to mobilize their poet while honoring the lizard!

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