massage education

Lizard Brains and the Power of Metaphor

Dear Ones, there are few things in live that give me the same intellectual warm fuzzies as a damn good metaphor.

 

And your very flesh shall be a great poem (Walt Whitman)

Hope is the thing with feathers (Emily Dickinson)

Beauty is truth, truth beauty (John Keats)

 

And oh so many more.  This is an occupational hazard of being a massage therapist who loves literature and language, and also really loves science.  Because science has delivered us some great metaphors.  They serve as a pathway to understanding our own bodies.  So eloquent and illuminating.  And yet, too often, so wrong.

 

Have you heard of the lizard brain?  That primitive part of our brain that controls basic survival functions and has no cortex for executive functions?  Maybe someone has brought out the lizard brain metaphor to explain their behavior in a stressful situation.  Or maybe you learned this in school as a way to remember how the cerebellum

red white and green chameleon
Photo by Egor Kamelev on Pexels.com

functions in relation to the rest of the human brain.

 

It’s a lovely little metaphor.  It’s easy to understand.  You only need to observe a lizard, or just know what a lizard is, to understand it.  It has kind of neat sound, too, with that “z” in the middle and the gong-like vowel sound at the end.  Satisfying.

 

And completely wrong.  See, our cerebellum is so much more complicated than I was taught in massage school.  (And, I’ll admit, than what I taught my first few classes of students.)   This “little brain” that we thought was only involved in coordinating movement actually has a hand (or a neuron) in almost all of what we do and think.

And we’ve known for a while that the idea that lizards don’t have a cerebral cortex is wrong.  They have a cerebral cortex — lizard version.  Of course it is very different from a mammal’s cortex, but it does exist.

We know all of this.  And yet the lizard brain metaphor persists.  I am wondering if maybe there is some usefulness to the metaphor.  Not as a way of understanding scientific reality, but perhaps as a way of understanding ourselves.  That messy, strange, shifting thing we may call our “being.”

We are not lizards, but we certainly share the planet with them.  And perhaps some behaviors.  Outside the realm of the classroom and brain science, could there be utility in understanding part of ourselves as lizard-like?  And harnessing that to control impulses, manage awareness, and grow into the humans we believe ourselves to be?

For my part, I will certainly strive for scientific accuracy in my classes, banning the phrase “lizard brain” from any materials.  In life, though, I may hold on to the metaphor for a little while longer.