How Your Reptilian Brain Controls Your Behavior Without You Even Knowing It

Siim Land

Our brain is one of the most complex pieces of software in the Universe. It’s actually divided into several parts that govern different tasks. This article is about how the reptilian brain controls your behavior subconsciously.

Do We Have a Reptilian Brain?

Brain /breɪn/ noun, ‘Cerebrum’ in Latin – an organ of soft nervous tissue contained in the skull of vertebrates, functioning as the coordinating center of sensation and intellectual and nervous activity.

The Triune brain model is divided into 3 parts or regions.

  • The basal ganglia, also called the reptilian brain is the most primitive part of our brain. It governs balance, territoriality, mating, feeding and other instinctual activities.
  • Then we have the center part that comprises the „limbic system“, which consists of the septum, amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampal complex, and cingulate cortex. This the mammalian or monkey brain – the brain of emotions and social hierarchies.
  • Finally, at the front, there’s the human brain, the cerebral cortex. This is where rational thinking is, especially in the pre-frontal cortex. It’s the most recent step in the evolution of the mammalian brain and gives the ability for language, abstraction, planning, and perception.
brain regions
How Your Reptilian Brain Controls Your Behavior


Reptilian Brain Function …errr

The reptilian brain is responsible for our species’ instinctual needs and governs our body’s physical needs for calories, reproduction, and safety.

In addition to our most basic needs, the basal ganglia also governs several other functions, such as motor control, balance, habits, learning through cause and effect, eye movements, fear etc.

Because it’s only concerned with our survival and the reproductive success of our genes, it will motivate us to always be as efficient with our evolutionary strategies – to move away from pain towards pleasure. This means that the reptilian complex subconsciously determines our decisions, making us find out the most cost-effective solution to our behaviors.

Crocodile Brains in a Modern World

In the past, it helped us to find as much food as possible and protect our territory from unwanted intruders. Today, calories aren’t scarce anymore and we aren’t threatened by Neanderthal bullies.

Our bodies suffer from a severe evolutionary time-lag. The basal ganglia and our physiology still live in the savannah, chasing gazelle and running from lions. In reality, the development of our species has undergone a massive quantum leap. Change has happened too quickly for our mind(s) to get accustomed to it, which is creating an unfortunate and unforgiving mismatch.

Because of that, our reptilian brain is still causing us to act as if our basic needs are still scarce. Food now surrounds us everywhere and calories are more than abundant.

What Does Your Reptilian Brain Want

The most precious nutrients for survival are salt, sugar, and fat.

  • Salt is vital for the chemical reactions and electrolyte balance of our body.
  • Fat is the most dense source of calories and is essential for hormonal production and the health of all cells, including the brain.
  • Sugar, or glucose, is the body’s default fuel source, but not the best one. It gives us instant energy and lights up certain reward mechanisms inside the brain. Because of its quick absorption, it can be stored very easily as fat.

Our taste buds and palate are all optimized to preferring these 3 foods. When you do something that’s perceived to be good for the survival of your genes, like eating burger and fries, having sex or achieving your goals, you release dopamine which is the reward neurotransmitter. As a result, the reptilian brain will always be motivated to repeat those same actions over and over again.

How Your Reptilian Brain Controls Your Food Choices

By themselves, salt, sugar, and fat aren’t harmful. It’s the deadly combination of the three that turns them into an almost addictive substance.

Unfortunately, the food corporations have discovered this as well and are using it to bait their customers, or their reptilian brains, into becoming addicts to their products.

It’s called the bliss point, in which the specific amount of satisfaction or stimulation and happiness is optimized – that sensory profile where you like food the most.

The reason why certain food tastes better than others has nothing to do with who you are objectively. It’s completely subjective.

You’re predisposed to liking salt, sugar and fat, but what your individual palate actually is like depends on how you’ve conditioned yourself to like certain foods.

  • If you’re eating a lot of sugar or carbohydrates, then your bliss point for sweetness is a lot higher than if you were to only eat whole foods
  • If you can’t stand the taste of vegetables then it’s because your taste buds are all messed up.
  • Frying foods and adding a lot of seasoning to them also makes the food more appealing and it’s going to adjust your palate

We’re completely controlled by our reptilian brains, as some nutrients are simply more precious than others. Food in of itself can’t objectively taste good – it’s only tasty in our subjective perception of it and how our brain has been hard-wired to like it on the subconscious level. It’s an illusion.

How Your Reptilian Brain Controls Your Behavior

When we do an activity that makes us feel good, we release dopamine. Our reptilian brain recognizes that what we just did yielded positive results – we did something that lit up our reward center.

As a result, it creates a pattern of recognition into our psyche, which motivates us to repeat our actions in the future to get the same results. Whether or not the action is actually good for us doesn’t matter, because the basal ganglia can’t consciously correspond with the world.

This creates a vicious cycle that can override any rational thought. Addiction, sex, junk food are all outcomes to this. You don’t even like eating that doughnut, smoking that cigarette or drinking – what your brain really craves for is the positive feedback.

Dopamine actually gets released the most in anticipation of the reward – when you’re about to take that bite or when you’re about to ejaculate – but after you reach the climax it gets oversaturated and you’re back at craving for more.

How the Reptilian Brain Controls Your Ego

One of the most fundamental roles of the reptilian complex is territoriality – to establish and defend one’s own surroundings. You can see it in all species – lizards, chimpanzees and even humans.

In the savannah neighboring tribes would fight each other to death over hunting grounds and gathering locations. Today, the same duality reflects in modern warfare, sports, business, politics and competing between each other.

Competition is a great motivator and positive reinforcement but it’s based on very primal defense mechanisms in our brain. If you really look at it from an objective point of view then political debates, championships and arguing with someone else is the same as 2 monkeys throwing shit at each other.

Wanting to exceed others or to be better is your reptile brain telling you that, in order to survive, you have to get rid of all competition.

This entire notion of “us vs them” is the reason for a lot of suffering in the world.

All racism, eugenics and inequalities, religions, cultures are reptilian based behaviors.

Consciousness Strikes Back

If our reptilian brain has been controlling us for so long, then how on earth have we managed to develop so far as a species. Well, as you can probably tell from your own experience, our primal physiology is still influencing our behavior to a great degree.

However, what distinguishes you and me from a crocodile is that we possess a much larger prefrontal cortex – the crown jewel of evolution – that gives rise to consciousness and meta-awareness.

Whenever you’re on autopilot and simply doing what your instincts are telling you, then you’re inevitably being controlled by the more primal parts of your brain.

You should not trust what your feelings or urges tell you because they’re hard-wired to make you take the path of least resistance – to give in to immediate gratification and reach a point of overabundance.

If you follow the signals your body is telling you, then you’ll back away from the things you’re afraid to do, you’ll gorge yourself until obese and sick, you’ll selfishly try to take from others and act violently against everyone who’s not on the same team as you.

What’s more, you’ll never be fulfilled and you’ll remain imprisoned by your ego.

How to Control Your Reptilian Brain

Truth is – you’re either in control or the one being controlled.

To not let your reptilian brain override your rational behavior, you would have to develop the habit of self-mastery and governance. They’re characteristics of higher levels of consciousness because of the ability to be meta-aware and mindful.

Practices like meditation, journaling, mindfulness, and breathing help you to detach yourself from the stimuli you experience. Instead of thinking about your anger or hunger for food as a part of yourself, you see yourself from an external perspective and realize that everything you feel and think is causally based.

You experience certain cravings and emotions just because of cause and effect – something triggers you and you subconsciously follow a certain routine that’s been embedded into your brain.

Once you identify the cause you can control the effect – you can choose to create a different response by distancing yourself from the event and then acting according to how you deem as better.

Empower Your Crocodile Brain

The reptilian brain isn’t trying to cause us suffering, quite the contrary. It’s just that it needs to be trained and conditioned appropriately. Our conscious self has the ability to educate our primal physiology and actually empower it.

This is what my entire blog and YouTube channel are all about – Body Mind Empowerment. And if you’re interested in learning more about other strategies and tactics of improving and optimizing yourself, then check out the Body Mind Empowerment Handbook.


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