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Introducing the Reptilian Brain to the 21st Century

nest of cardinals
The baby cardinals incubating in this nest (and their parents) on my parents’ back porch are all about survival and always will be. But I was born with a prefrontal cortex, which means I have extra work to do to evolve here and now in the 21st century.

Do you ever stop to think about how odd it is to have a large prefrontal cortex and a limbic and reptilian brain stem all crammed together inside your skull?

Talk about opposites attract.

The two couldn’t be more different.

In theory, this is a good thing. What is that saying about “keep your friends close and your enemies closer?”

The reptilian and limbic brain is all about survival – as in, I get that you’re hungry but I’m not on the menu.

This is the part of the brain we need to deal with the pandemic threat from COVID-19.

In contrast, the prefrontal cortex is all about evolution – as in, survival is so last year. I want to thrive!

This is the part of the brain we need to deal with current racial tensions, gender tensions, age tensions, sexual orientation tensions, socioeconomic and cultural tensions, interspecies tensions.

So one part of our brain – arguably the most ancient part of all – is simply trying to get us from one minute to the next, one day to the next, still all in one piece.

To do this, it needs to notice everything, catalogue everything.

Every tiny difference, from size and shape to species or skin color – it notices. And it tells us about it. It tells us with the inherent bias that “this could be life-threatening – it probably is life-threatening – if you ignore it and it ends you, don’t blame me.”

Truthfully, this attitude – unpleasant though it sometimes may be – is probably why our species has made it this far. Over the millennia, the reptilian and limbic brain system has become very good at what it does.

Then there is this other part of our brain – the prefrontal cortex and its systems, which is arguably the newest part – that is working overtime to help us learn how to make the most of this extended survival our reptilian and limbic brain system is providing us with.

To do this, it needs to learn how to see similarities – first impartially and then preferentially – to differences.

It needs to overcome the tendency towards seeing life as us vs them, with prejudice, discrimination, and even outright fearfulness of surface differences – it needs to dig down and get detailed about which of these differences actually still matter (aka still help us survive another day) and which no longer matter at all.

In other words, it needs a system update. Or rather, a massive operating system overhaul.

As you like already know if you’ve ever caught yourself watching one of your devices verifying an update for hours and hours (never mind actually uploading and installing it) – this is actually quite hard work!

It can take a long, long, LONG time.

Meanwhile….I don’t know about you, but in my personal head right at the moment, there is a nearly 24/7 argument raging.

You see, all the new information comes in at ground level and has to pass through the reptilian and limbic brain centers for a thorough safety scan before getting bumped up into the prefrontal cortex for consideration, cataloguing and final processing.

And the reptilian and limbic brain defaults to guilty until proven innocent. It basically thinks everything it receives is a threat, at least until thoroughly proven otherwise.

So what is going on inside my head isn’t pretty, with the prefrontal cortex ever-aware that there is new (interesting, likely non-threatening) information coming in that is continually getting held up for questioning inside the reptilian and limbic brain system.

So then it gets frustrated, and marches down there to try to snatch the item out of that system’s scaly clutches.

Of course, the reptilian limbic brain doesn’t want to give it up. After all, it could be life-threatening. There are questions to be asked and answers to be had. There are “i”s to be dotted and “t”s to be crossed.

It is inevitable….a tug-of-war just waiting to happen.

The reptilian limbic brain is screeching about “potential threats” and “due process” and the prefrontal cortex could very well be accused of ageism as it screams back something about “changing with the times” and “getting a clue already.”

It is not a good neighborhood – no place you want to be after dark, for sure.

The prefrontal brain in me just wants equality already. It feels so good!

It is such a relief, to just not care or even SEE anymore who is black, who is white, who is female, who is male, who is straight, who is not straight, who is old, who is young, who is this, who is that. It feels empowering – liberating – to realize it just doesn’t matter and to be able to drop it already.

But then the reptilian limbic brain in me pushes back with an argument that is hard to refute.

“Hate me now but you’ll thank me later. Remember that well-camouflaged saber-tooth tiger I saved you from back in the Pleistocene?”

It is true. Me-today is likely only alive now because me-then survived long enough to pass along her genes.

Ultimately, I think we will get there. I think I will get there. And prefrontal me really wants to get there. Truth be told, reptilian limbic me sometimes also dreams of me getting there. She is weary of so many threats to process and new ones added day in and day out, every single day. The queue is long and just getting longer. She needs a vacation.

We all do.

Changes takes time. More importantly, changes takes energy.

Every time I talk with a friend and they say to me “just be kind to yourself right now” I feel weepy. It is hard work – being part of the problem.

The only work on this planet that is harder, it would seem, is being part of the solution.

I am writing this today just in case, like me, you need someone to tell you “be kind to yourself right now.”

Be kind to yourself right now. Change is hard work. It takes time. Rest up. There is more work to be done.

With great respect and love,


Introducing the Reptilian Brain to the 21st Century

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Songwriter. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2020). Introducing the Reptilian Brain to the 21st Century. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Jun 2020
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