Sunday, April 11, 2010

The lizard brain, ninjas and pedagogy

Change is never easy.

One of the scariest things that comes with change is rationalizing the past. Everyone has an ego, and quite often we have to reason with our ego, so we don't crumble.

Here's what I mean.

If you've done something like teach or parent in a certain way for a very long time, it may be a very difficult thing to admit that perhaps you've been doing things wrong - or at least not as good as you thought you were. For every year of experience, your ego will take this more and more personally.

Inevitably, many of us then become defensive. Like a wounded animal whose been cornered by a fierce predator, we bunker down and resolve ourselves to a kind of pre-historic, fight or flight mentality.

Some like Seth Godin call this the lizard brain while others still like Steven Pressfield call it the resistance.

Godin explains:

The resistance is the voice in the back of our head telling us to back off, be careful, go slow, compromise... The lizard is a physical part of your brain, the pre-historic lump near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive...the lizard hates change and achievement and risk...The amygdala isn't going away. Your lizard brain is here to stay, and your job is to figure out how to quiet it and ignore it.

When we are challenged by others to change something we do or believe in, the lizard brain barks. And if that something is near and dear to us, like our parenting practices or teaching pedagogy - the resistance can be fierce.

Don't get me wrong, the lizard brain brain's fight or flight mentality can sometimes be a very good thing. In his book Confessions of a Public Speaker, Scott Berkun writes:

Even if you could completely shut off these fear-response systems.. it would be a bad idea for two reasons. First, having the old parts of our brains in control of our fear responses is a good thing. If a legion of escaped half-lion, half-ninja warriors were to fall through the ceiling and surround you - with the sole mission of converting your fine flesh into thin sandwich-ready slices - do you want the burden of consciously deciding how fast to increase your heart, or which muscles to fire first to get your legs moving so you can run away? Your conscious mind cannot work fast enough to do these things in the small amount of time you'd have to survive. It's good that fear responses are controlled by the subconscious parts of your minds, since those are the only parts with fast enough wires to do anything useful when real danger happens.

The lizard brain serves a purpose when we are in big-time trouble; however, for the most part, our lives are pretty darn safe, and quite often, the lizard brain ends up holding us back.

Rather than seeing change as an indictment on what you've done in the past, see change as an opportunity to do today what others won't, so tomorrow you can accomplish what others can't.

As a parent or teacher, my ego takes pride in the fact that I am always doing my best with the information I have today. If I gain some kind of new information that rattles my cage, and throws my parenting or pedagogy for a loop, then I have to ask myself, Am I ignoring this information at my own peril? at my daughter's peril? at my students' peril?

Look, not all change is good. Change for the sake of change is no better than tradition for the sake of tradition. Change may seem scary. But blindly following the status quo that has no relationship with reality may be even scarier.

Always be mindful of change and tradition. And if the lizard brain barks, be conscious of it - unless there are ninjas threatening your very existence, it's presence needs to be tamed.


  1. Hi Joe and thank you for (yet again) one more thought-provoking post.
    I have been teaching for ten years almost and I must say that this post has touched a special chord in me - going back to those first days or even years of teaching, I can now admit that I did make a lot of stupid mistakes that I thought were pretty smart things back then.
    The hardest part eventually was not correcting the wrongs but actually admitting that I had done them. From the beginning I thought that I was cut out for teaching and that everything I did was right - how much I would like to go back and smack my then self on the head! Teaching is not about popularity, or kids getting good grades (that makes teachers look good supposedly) or anything like that. Teaching is about kids really, truly and genuinely learning - and enjoying it at the same time.
    I am not the perfect teacher nor do I think that I never make mistakes - but now I know how to admit them and what to do to never make them again. The best part of teaching is that the teacher always learns along with the kids. And I know what I want my kids so much to do - to learn. So I guess I have that one right!
    Thank you again Joe,

  2. We must have lizards on the brain:

  3. Hi Joe,
    Love the reference to the lizard brain. I remain in awe of the fact that each part of the human brain serves a function that is grounded in our evolution as a species. While we honour the stem (which represents our roots, really) I believe it is also important for us to 'light up the pre-frontal cortex' in our classrooms. Empathy, creativity, self-regulation, critical thought, solving complex problems, these are the acts that activate of this area of the mind. I guess the lizard brain is where we were and the pre-frontal cortex is where we are, and are going.
    I always enjoy your posts.




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