The Lizard Brain Chases the Dragon

Red Dragon

The “lizard brain,” the primitive tenant in a person’s skull, is easily fooled into thinking that just because something feels good, it is actually beneficial. As writer Jim Dickey (25 years sober) says:

While the concept is no longer fully embraced by most of the scientific community, the term reptile brain, lizard brain, or monkey brain was picked up in recovery circles as a way of describing the parts of the brain which are evolutionarily primitive and control our emotions, drives and urges.

Although more of a metaphor than an anatomical reality, the evocative image was adopted by Terrance Hodgkins, an addiction researcher with 14 years of sobriety. The primitive lizard, or base, brain falls for the cruelest trick played by addictors and addictogens. A user starts out thinking this will be the romance of a lifetime, but the honeymoon ends swiftly. Hodgkins notes:

A “virgin high” is the high you get the first time you take a particular drug. It is often much higher than anything you will ever get from that drug again … if you keep on using that drug, then it stops working, and won’t kill your pain any more … You end up still in pain, just feeding a habit.

With its low IQ and lack of sophistication, the lizard brain just doesn’t get it. It keeps on “chasing the dragon,” trying to recapture the ecstatic initial experience with a substance or behavior, but the first time does not return for a repeat performance.

Last time, we talked about a young man whose first night of drinking awoke an inner voice that said, “This is who we are.” He came to feel that his alcoholism was like another sentient being that shared his body. Hodgkins (who quit nicotine along with alcohol) mentions the same phenomenon, a voice that says things like “Why don’t we sneak outside and smoke a quick one?”

Sometimes, it is almost like we are two people, a split personality … sometimes, what the higher brain thinks is the opposite of what the lower brain thinks … I developed the habit of calling it “The Addiction Monster.”

The Lizard Brain Addiction Monster wants what it wants now, and does not give a fig about long-term consequences. Instant gratification is the only game in town. As Jim Dickey phrased it:

The short term goal is to give in to the addictive behavior, which conflicts with the long term goals of being happy, productive and experiencing love and companionship while living a life which honors our values.

Even though dull-witted, the reptile brain is at the same time dangerously clever. The Orange Papers website contains comprehensive lists of all the sneaky, persuasive, undermining things the Addiction Monster will say to the recovering addict — and say, and say, and say. Fortunately, Hodgkins also includes ways to overcome the reptilian tactics and ploys.

Still, we have to give the lizard brain its props for keeping us alive by, for instance, pushing air in and out while we sleep. And it tells us to eat food, without which we would starve. It must create this need, or the whole ball game is over before it even starts. Hodgkins writes:

Food is our first addiction … If we don’t get our fix, we start to experience withdrawal symptoms like stomach aches and headaches, and then we develop a snappy short temper, and feel weak and shaky. Then we will start feeling desperate, and start thinking about stealing or mugging someone to get money for a fix. And the longer we go without a food fix, the worse it gets. That sure sounds like a strung-out junkie to me.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Reptile Brain?,” Reptiledysfunction.org, undated
Source: “The Lizard Brain Addiction Monster,” orange-papers.org, 11/17/14
Image by rumpleteaser

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Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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