Ingeborg van Teeseling

Lobotomizing the Lizard Brain in All of Us

I’ve spent the last nine months seeking rational news in an effort to kill the lizard brain. Did it work? I don’t know, but here’s what I learned.


About nine months ago, I told you I was starting an experiment. Because it has now had the normal human gestation period, I can bring you up to date with some preliminary results.

September last year I met Cathrine Gyldensted, a Danish journalist teaching at a Dutch university. She is the world’s leading proponent of constructive journalism which aims to write stories that empower readers by not focusing on the world as a valley of tears, but a place of possibilities and people who try their best. In writing up my interview with her, I promised you that I would “try to be as constructive as possible, while still holding on to my journalistic principles.” So, in the last nine months, I have tried to focus on positives. There were series about visionaries, mavericks, and real Aussie pride, stories about solutions to problems and attempts to explain concepts or issues instead of yelling about them. I don’t know if it made any sense to you or if it has influenced you in any way at all. It probably hasn’t, because I am only one voice among the thousands you listen to every day and therefore a drop in the ocean. I understand that. On the other hand, I am changing because of it, and rapidly too. And that is what I wanted to share with you today. Not so much my transformation, but what that tells me about all of us.

It is a complicated world we live in. Or, actually, no, let me rephrase that. The world is complicated, but we are letting ourselves get used to simple solutions to our problems. This is how it goes: something happens. Terrorism, strange political machinations, domestic violence, whatever it is. Our automatic reaction is to shout about it. Mostly it is negative: kill, lock up, evict, excommunicate. The person yelling is not our best self, the person our parents are proud of and our friends want to hang out with. It is our lizard brain talking. And that is interesting, because the lizard brain was there even before we had speech. It is the pre-verbal part of the brain, the limbic cortex, the section where all the Fs reside: fear, flight, freeze, food, fornication (and lately also Facebook). The lizard brain is the seat of unfiltered, unfettered, unrestrained emotion. It is primitive and geared towards survival on the savanna. It is a reaction to what we think threatens us and therefore it is usually aggressive. Better to shoot first and ask questions later, that sort of behavior. There is no rationale involved, no thinking. It is a reaction, not a response, which usually does involve some thought.

Now, the interesting thing with the lizard brain is that it doesn’t understand the difference between genuine and imaginary danger. It gets almost as scared of violence on television (like a terrorist attack half a world away) as it does when danger stares it in the face in real life. Evolutionarily, this had a function that we still use in education today: we tell our children about saber-toothed tigers, big bad wolves, and pedophiles, in the hope that the fear this triggers will protect them when they are confronted with the menace in the flesh. In a way, it is exposure therapy, repeating a message over and over in order to prevent genuine harm. The problem, of course, is that all this constant talk about danger leads the lizard brain to believe that saber-toothed tigers run around in great numbers, that big bad wolves lurk on every street corner, and that every man (and why stop there, let’s include women) is a pedophile. Because of that, it gets even more fearful and therefore more inclined to lash out, even if nothing has really happened.

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Because the lizard brain is flighty and not so smart, it is easily manipulated, and that is the biggest danger around at the moment. Think about it. Did you realize that the person responsible for bringing the British Tories to power is the same person who made Tony Abbott the Prime Minister? The same person who advised John Howard to lie about “babies overboard” in the Tampa Affair? The same person who brought conservative forces to power in New Zealand, Canada, and Sri Lanka and was knighted last year for his “services to politics?” Lynton Crosby really likes what The Guardian calls “the great narrative: leveraging racist nationalism off the back of social inequality,” meaning that he uses nationalism, whiteness, and racial division to stimulate fear. He does this because he knows that a fearful electorate votes with its lizard brain and not with the rest of its capacities. And that a government that controls the lizard brain can decide the agenda (or divert attention away from something it doesn’t want the people to see). Crosby is famous for calling this the “dead cat theory:” if you are losing an argument because the facts are against you, you throw a dead cat on the table so people start talking about it instead.

Of course, Crosby is not alone in using our lizard brain to get what he wants. As The Atlantic wrote recently: Barack Obama had a “cerebral approach” to terrorism, repeating the message that far more people get killed in car accidents than terrorist attacks. What this did, the paper said, was give people the impression that the president was “tone-deaf to the public mood” (read: fear; read: lizard brain), therefore leaving an “emotional void into which stepped Donald Trump, who…embodies the fearful alarmism that terrorism can provoke.” When we are afraid, we seem unable to listen to our rational brain. We behave like medieval peasants who try to fight the dragon: we pull up the drawbridge, sharpen the pikes, and allow our lord to take our children and our money. Even if there is no dragon, if we hear rumors of its existence often enough we believe he is real and out to get us.

Of course, this is great news to the lords and kings and their modern equivalents. The more fearful we are, the more repression we will accept. Just before the British election, Theresa May promised the voters that her new government would rip up human rights laws to impede terrorism. What she wanted was new legislation which would make it easier to deport people even if there was no sufficient evidence to prosecute them. Also on her wish list were longer prison sentences, travel bans, and doing more to restrict the freedoms of people, “and if human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change those laws.” May was certain the electorate would lap up this message, especially because after the London Bridge attacks, anti-Muslim hate crimes had increased five-fold. The lizards were out in force and that pleased the Conservative leader immensely.

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Anything they can do, we can do better, the Australian Liberals must have thought. So, in the last federal budget, there was more, much more money for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), ASIO, and the AFP. Probably about $400 million more, but we don’t know that because the government has told us that releasing this information is “a risk to national security.” Which would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. In last year’s budget, ASIS already got $295.8 million in new funding and, of course, ASIO just had delivery of its new, $700 million headquarters. But that wasn’t enough. This time, foreign aid funds had to be diverted to pay for an increase in the budget of the Australia-New Zealand Counter Terrorism Committee and the establishment of a Cyber Security Advisory Office and a Critical Infrastructure Center, whatever they are. And because “terrorism” seems to work as a catch phrase to get what you want, NSW police have now been given extra powers to use force during “terrorist” incidents, allowing them to preemptively shoot to kill, including a new rollout of weapons “that will double the number of military-style, semi-automatic rifles available.” All of this as the consequence of an incident (the Lindt Café siege) that was not terrorist-related and where the families of the victims had, in fact, asked for heads of responsible police chiefs to roll. Dead cats indeed. But effective, because on the sideline was our lizard brain cheering.

Naturally, there are rational people telling us what is going on. A few weeks ago, it was Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs who said that Australia’s politicians are “leading assaults on democratic ideals” by undermining community advocacy and freedom of speech. She referenced a report by Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur, who found that the Australian government views advocacy groups as political opposition and tries to discredit them with fake news and defunding. Even before Triggs, there was the Former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry, not usually known for his political opinions, who accused the government of “burying the reform agenda” by using “the politics of fear and anger.” To Henry, it was clear that politicians had dug themselves “deep trenches,” firing insults at each other, “with populism supplying the munitions.” Again, there it was: fear, dead cats, and the lizard brain.

But, there is hope. What I have learned from focusing on the positive over the last nine months is that the repeat, repeat, repeat of the fear mongers also works if you want to teach yourself that the world is not such a bad place after all. Neuroplasticity works both ways. We can rewire our brain by piling up fear and scaring it shitless, but we can also, I now know, calm it down by showing it how great people can be and how many good things happen every day. I am not talking cute puppies or flower power, by the way, but the examples I wrote about in the last couple of months. Visionaries, activists, mavericks, and everyday people being constructive instead of cutting each other’s throats. Mine is not a sunny disposition. I get angry and scared easily, especially when there are things to lose. When my granddaughter was born last August, I could only see threats to her existence and my inability to protect her against them. What these nine months of experimental optimism have taught me is that the old adage is true: a better world really does start with me. I can’t influence the crazies, but I can rewire my brain. Away from the lizard.




Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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