This article, entitled The Reptilian Brain and How It Can Stop Your Child From Learning comes from Dr. Phyllis Books at reversingdyslexia.com.
“Hurry up, answer the question!”
“You knew this last week—what happened?”
Have you ever felt scared when someone asked you a question and your mind went blank? The person kept bugging you for an answer, but you were frozen and unable to answer. I saw this last night on television—chefs rolled a die and had to come up with a meal ingredient that began with that letter. Most of them froze for a moment, even though they knew the answer.
Do you know why it’s so hard to answer questions when people are badgering you or you feel pressured? The answer lies in the reptilian brain, also known as the primitive brain. When something stressful happens, like being put on the spot, you probably want to do one of three things: lash out (fight), run away (flight), or stop in your tracks like a frightened deer (freeze).
Welcome to the world of the reptilian or basic brain. As the first level of our brains to develop, it takes care of the most basic functions—safety and survival. It doesn’t matter who you are, your reptilian brain has the ability to shut you down in an instant if it feels threatened or unsafe. And when I say shut you down, I mean it literally. It may be happening to your child every day.
Your child isn’t learning because for some reason, his or her nervous system is currently un-integrated. That means that the reptilian brain is in control because the other two brains, the limbic system and the neocortex, aren’t actively communicating with the basic brain. The reason for this probably goes back to the first few years of life when the brain was developing. Or because some trauma has unraveled your child and put him or her back into survival mode, in which the reptilian brain thrives. An un-integrated nervous system means that the reptilian brain is calling all the shots.
You’ve seen the results of this lack of integration: aggressive behavior, fiery temper for no reason, smart mouthing, walking away in the middle of a challenging discussion, or standing there looking like a deer in the headlights. These immature behaviors are typical of kids labeled as learning disabled, because that’s what this “lizard” or basic brain is all about—sensing danger, gearing up for survival, and fiercely protecting itself until its instincts tell it that the immediate danger has passed.
This information is shocking to many of my clients, and you may think this information couldn’t possibly apply to you or your child. You live in a nice house in a “good” neighborhood, with plenty of food and all the creature comforts. None of that matters if your child feels different or isn’t learning the way the other kids are. His or her brain is experiencing fear every day and is focused on survival, and it cannot learn as long as the reptilian brain is in charge.
The reptilian or primitive brain was the first part of our brains to develop and handles our basic survival and safety issues. Like a snake sunning itself when it feels safe (as we do when we are at the pool), our reptilian brain can also retreat quickly when conditions become unsafe. Like a startled rattlesnake, it can lash out when scared or confronted. Like other reptiles, it is territorial and loves rituals (think teenage gangs).
I don’t want to give you the impression that the reptilian brain is bad or is no longer relevant to our technology-based lives. The primitive part of our brain is not only necessary for safety and survival, but it helps us thrive in many areas, such as rhythm, routine, and repetition. However, in order for our children to learn in a classroom, the reptilian brain must not be scared; it must feel safe and calm.
When we feel fear—as children who aren’t learning like other kids feel—we may lash out, retreat, defend our position, or operate by reacting (also a function of the reptilian brain); we’re just running scared. Seventy-five percent of all communication to the thinking part of our brain shuts down when we’re afraid or threatened, and the reptilian brain takes over. That’s just the way we’re designed, and it’s why you can’t learn when you’re scared.
As infants, the primitive brain develops as we move like reptiles—with our bellies to the ground. We’re “army crawling,” crawling on all fours, and beginning to sit up. At the same time, we’re determining whom and what is safe around us. When a baby feels safe, he or she can fall asleep, knowing all is well. The reptilian brain is content, secure, and calm.
Compare that to a child on the playground who is scared. He isn’t feeling safe and secure, and the reptilian brain takes over. He may be picking a fight, fleeing to escape a bully, or trying to hold back tears in an effort not to show weakness. The reptilian brain thinks he is in a fight for his life, and that state of high alert doesn’t magically turn off when the bell rings to go back to class.
When the reptilian brain is calm and feels safe, children learn quickly and retain what they know. Other approaches to dyslexia don’t address the reptilian brain; they focus on other aspects of dyslexia such as vision issues. By ignoring the reptilian brain’s issues and failing to remedy the developmental missteps that have occurred along the way, other approaches are like applying a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. Contact me today, and we can help your child’s reptilian brain feel safe.