Beyond The Reptilian Brain


Jury consultants including David Ball have advocated appealing to “the reptilian brain” when presenting a case to the jury. I read David Ball’s books and consider him to be a high level jury consultant dedicated to advancing trial advocacy. I believe all serious trial lawyers read Ball and learn from him.

It is important to consider the source of the Reptilian Brain, and tailor Reptilian theories accordingly. This is because our brains are  more complex than the Reptilian Brain proponents give us credit. A couple of years ago I was introduced to the Triune Brain when reading The Biology of Transcendence: A Blueprint of the Human Spirit, by Joseph Clinton Pearce (Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont) (2002). From Pearce I learned Dr. Paul MacLean, a physician and neuroscientist,  years ago developed the theory of the Triune Brain.

According to MacLean the human brain has evolved in three stages and  is composed of three parts. Each has its own intelligence, its own sense of time, and its own unique function. (But see Appropriateness of Triune Brain Theory).

First, we have the oldest part of our brain located at the base of the brain which he termed the Reptilian Brain. The Reptilian Brain or R-Complex evolved hundreds of millions of years ago. The R-Complex is referred to as the Reptilian Brain because it is similar to the brain of the modern day reptile. It replicates bodily processes of breathing, heart beat, and the fear and flight mechanism. The R-Complex functions in a habitual patterned way. It is unable to alter learned behavior.

The R-Complex takes over physical parts of our learned skills such as walking, running, typing, biking, driving, playing an instrument, or playing a sport. This in turn frees the upper more highly evolved areas of the brain to stand outside of motor function and observe and discover ways to improve.

Second, surrounding the R- Complex MacLean teaches we have the more recently evolved Limbic System. This is the emotional cognitive part of our brain. According to MacLean our long term memory stems from this part of our brain. Long term memory occurs when there is an emotional arousal associated with an event. The limbic system (emotional brain) is where we evolve our relationships. According to Joseph Pearce the key time frame for development of our emotional brain is the first few years of life. If we have a stable situation we are fortunate and will develop in a well balanced emotional way. Lack of stability translates to impaired emotional development.

Third, MacLean teaches stacked on top of the Limbic System and more recently evolved is our Neocortex. This is the upper and frontal parts of our brain. The Neocortex controls higher executive thought. This includes speech, mathematics, thinking and reasoning.

According to Joseph Pearce, under MacLean’s Triune Brain theory, in normal development the three brains work together, and they work together from the top down. A positive emotional state developing after birth allows the three systems to compliment one another. Thus, we are free to think and learn (Neocortex), as we are emotionally balanced (Limbic System), and on auto pilot (R-Complex). We are thinking from the top down.

Conversely, in deviant development our three brains do not work together. Because of a negative emotional state our three brains are divided. This means learning and development are impaired. Thus, we shift or reverse our thought from top down (normal) to bottom up (deviant). In a bottom up situation the reptilian controls. We become defensive, fearful, and reactionary.

In the next series of posts we will explore considerations on how we make decisions with our foundation being the entire Triune Brain. We will begin with the R-Complex Reptilian Brain.

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