Lizard Brain, Writer’s Block and You

Writer’s Block comes about because we are all victims of an evolutionary accident. What is this accident? Well, let’s just say that you have a part of your brain that still believes you’re a lizard. For this part of your brain, time has stood still, as it was one hundred million years ago.

Staying Alive

writer's block
It wants you to stay alive. In fact, the only function of this part of your brain is to ensure that you do stay alive. It is designed to keep you out of the jaws of predators.  At the same time, helping you to become a more successful predator.

However, the chances of a saber-toothed tiger chasing after you  today are relatively slim. So instead, your lizard brain reacts to non-threatening, modern stressors as if they were primitive, life-threatening situations.

As a result, you fight, freeze or flee from deadlines, success, interpersonal relationships. All the thing you really always wanted to do as if they were a rabid pack of stampeding tyrannosaurs.

Writer’s Block

So, when you’re facing crippling writer’s block, you’re actually facing your own ingrained, evolutionary survival behaviors. When you look at that empty computer screen or a blank sheet of paper thinking about content and deadlines, your lizard brain sees trouble.

It doesn’t understand the niceties of creativity or the responsibilities of earning a living. That’s stuff for the newer, more rational, parts of your brain. Instead, this ancient remnant of a long gone age interprets your stress as a signal to freeze. Freeze – don’t take action. Don’t solve the problem. Above all, don’t move. The result is a classic case of writer’s block.

The Fix

Fortunately, when it comes to writer’s block, this situation is fairly easy to fix. The first step is to recognize that the writer’s block is because your lizard brain doesn’t realize that you are not under any threat of immediate death!

Next, take a moment also to recognize that the block is a direct result of your lizard brain unconsciously affecting your behavior. In response to the perceived threat, your reaction is to freeze. Finally, purposely ignore this unconscious reaction. Instead of freezing, do the opposite.

Take action and solve the problem by doing the one thing you want to do the least – start writing. Once you begin to break down the behavior by moving forward, you’ll find that the writer’s block itself will break, and your creative juices will flow. I t doesn’t matter if you type a laundry or shopping list, just write.

Lizard Brain, Procrastination, and You

There is an old Spanish proverb that says tomorrow is the busiest day of the week.  For those prone to waiting until the last minute to get a job done, procrastination is a destructive curse.

It causes untold stress. It ruins reputations. It contributes to financial hardship and it places a solid roadblock on the road to success. The irony is that the tendency to procrastinate is because an evolutionary survival mechanism that hasn’t adjusted to the pace of the modern world.

The Source

The source of procrastination is located deep in the most ancient part of the human brain. The area of the brain known as the amygdala. It sits at the very base of the brain on the top of the spinal column. The amygdala is responsible for controlling most of your unconscious decisions. The amygdala drives hunger and thirst, sleepiness and wakefulness and pulse and respiration.

Basic Instinct

The urges to eat, sleep, procreate and survive are common impulses shared by many different species. The motive force behind all these needs is the amygdala. In fact, if you were to compare the amygdalae of a human being with a horse, an ostrich, and a boa constrictor, the only anatomical difference you would see is size. Each separate amygdala functions in a remarkably similar way, no matter the species.

The amygdala

So, how does this all tie into procrastination? Well, when faced with a need, the amygdala can only respond in one of three ways – fight, freeze or flee. Depending on the situation you fight, or take flight.

So, when an upcoming task or deadline happens, the amygdala misinterprets the stress. It thinks the time limit is a life threatening situation and subconsciously tells you to freeze. While this was a useful strategy fifty million years ago, today it directly causes procrastination.

The easiest way to combat what is, in essence, a mixed-up brain signal is to recognize where the impulse to procrastinate comes from consciously. Once done, it becomes harder and more difficult for the individual affected to give in to the urge to freeze. Eventually, the habit of procrastinating falls away, along with its harmful effects.

How to Fight Lizard Brain

So, you read the title of this article and probably thought “Huh?” That reaction is not unexpected. To know how to fight lizard brain, you have first to know what lizard brain is. Fair enough.
The term “lizard brain” is a modern connotation of the anatomical term “reptilian complex” or “R-complex”. The term, “reptilian complex”, in turn, refers to a specific part of the human brain known as the amygdala.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls basic functions and needs, things like pulse, respiration, hunger and sleep.

It is also one of the oldest parts of the brain, from an evolutionary standpoint. We share the structure of our amygdala with sheep, goats, snakes and lizards. Because of this, the r-complex is also the source of rigid assumptions, fear and compulsive behaviors.


The r-complex has newer, more developed areas of the brain, the limbic system, and the neocortex surrounding it. This means that the assumptions and fears generated by the r-complex in an effort to satisfy basic needs interact with complex brain functions like rational thought. The resulting mix of signals can, and does, result in some fairly negative behaviors.

These lizard brain behaviors range from phobias to snap judgments to procrastination to writer’s block and more. They arise because the r-complex is designed to work in only one simple mode. When confronted with a challenge, such as hunger, or a perceived threat, such as a frightening situation, our lizard brains gives us only three possible choices – fight, freeze or flee.

Fight or Flight

Back in the day, say fifty million years ago, these were valid day to day options that helped keep our distant ancestors alive and kicking. If you were hungry, you killed something and ate it. If something was trying to kill and eat you, you froze or ran away. In other words, the amygdala helped you to live to fight, freeze or flee another day.

In the modern world, these options are limited by convention and circumstances. In addition, they are not always valid, ethical or legal. If you’re hungry, you can’t just kill the neighbor’s dog or rob a convenience store to satisfy your need for food.

Instead, a better approach is to recognize that the lizard brain is there in your head, doing what it always has done, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Knowing when the effects of the lizard brain are for the worse is the key to controlling these effects.

The Negative Effects of the Lizard Brain

Everywhere you look, you see the effects of evolution and natural selection. The grass and trees in your yard are there because of it. The food in your pantry and refrigerator are there because of it. Your pet dog or cat is there because of it. Most importantly, when you look in the mirror, you are seeing a product of the process of evolution as well. You are here because of it.

Evolution, as you may know, is driven by the twin engines of mutation and genetic drift. Cells replicate by making copies of themselves. During this process mistakes happen. This is a mutation. Most times the mutation is harmful. Occasionally, the mutation is beneficial. These types of “mistakes” then get passed on to the next generation.

Genetic Drift

Genetic drift occurs naturally over time among all genetic populations, especially those separated from each other by the distance. When enough time goes by, the two separate populations are sufficiently different to constitute different species.
What does this have to do with the negative effects of the lizard brain? Well, nature is nothing if not efficient. As evolution proceeds through mutation and genetic drift, things that might be slightly obsolete get coopted into new uses they weren’t originally designed for. A perfect example of this is the amygdala in the human brain.

Source of Lizard Brain

The amygdala is the source of “lizard brain” behaviors precisely because it is the genetic remnant of the brain possessed by a reptile that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. That dinosaur existed in a world much different than ours. The world was full of simple needs and simple dangers. In essence, you ate something or you were eaten. The lizard that possessed this brain needed only three basic instinctual impulses to survive. Depending on the circumstances, it needed to fight, freeze or flee.

How Lizard Brain Works

The lizard brain in our heads still operates, in the same way, today. The difference is that there isn’t a lot of eating or be eaten situations in modern society, so fighting, fleeing or freezing are often inappropriate responses to modern situations. What happens instead of fighting, people exhibit rigid, kneejerk behaviors and anger. Instead of fleeing, people become unreasonably frightened. Instead of freezing people procrastinate or unintentionally sabotage themselves.
Realizing where these inappropriate responses come from, and why, is the first step to dealing with “lizard brain” behaviors. Simply because there is the remnant of a lizard brain in each of our heads, does not mean that we have to actualize these ancient, and largely obsolete, reactions.

Conquering Fear

Unreasonable fear is a crippling and debilitating phenomenon that affects nearly everyone at one time or another. This fear can prevent the affected person from fully enjoying a particular experience. It can also inhibit that person to such an extent that they forego particular experiences or events altogether. This prevention or inhibition may eventually occur often enough to actually hold the individual back from achieving goals, potential and overall success. This type of chronic fear is unreasonable. It robs a person of the very thing they hold most dear – life itself.

Fear Is An Evolutionary Tool

The emotion of fear is, in and of itself, a very useful evolutionary tool. Quite simply, it helps to keep an organism alive long enough to guarantee procreation and, as a result, another generation of similar organisms. It’s sensible and reasonable to be afraid of something that has a good potential to cut your life short. However, when fear has no grounds it makes no sense. Let’s take a look at this phenomenon a little more closely.

Fear, both reasonable and unreasonable, originates at the base of the brain known as the reptilian or R-complex. This is one of the oldest parts of the human brain. We share its structure with many other species, including lizards. Hence, it’s other common name – the lizard brain.

The Why

Besides producing the sensation of fear, the lizard brain also largely controls many of the basic autonomic functions of the human body.  The job of the lizard brain is to keep the owner of the brain alive. However, the lizard brain evolved at a time when danger, as well as the stress caused by danger, was relatively straightforward. You either ate or were eaten. The lizard brain dealt with that simple situation very efficiently.

Modern Stress

The problem is that modern stresses usually do not involve life-threatening situations. Lizard brain does not understand this.  When mundane stress is experienced it still misinterprets this stress as critical. This misinterpretation is the source of unreasonable, groundless fear.
The easiest way to combat this unreasonable fear is by using your rational mind to reinterpret the situation. This is done by calmly assessing the circumstances causing the fear. Once this is accomplished and you’ve seen that the situation is definitely not life threatening, ask yourself what the worst possible outcome could be. This rational examination of your fear calms the lizard brain, thus reducing the severity, as well as the occurrence, of that fear.

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  1. Writers block can be a terrible thing. Sometimes I stare for hours to blank sheet of paper and going to try these tricks to see if I can get past writers block.

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