I experience frequent, urgent cravings for very specific things and act on them immediately. As soon as I open my eyes I often know exactly what I want: to wear a particular little outfit, buy a sandwich of a certain heft and filling from this shop in this postcode, eat it (for instance) on a bench under a tree. It’s a shame that the place in me capable of conjuring these whims also regularly churns out other, much more boring urges, and occasionally dangerous ones too. My brain is a constant game of Hungry Hungry Hippos, my dopamine receptors snapping noisily at an alarming rate, urging me to do things that actually bring me very little pleasure at all. Why do I want things that don’t make me feel good? I’m at the mercy of my lizard brain and the mechanisms of society designed to exploit it.
The concept of the three-tiered brain – a primitive reptilian brain nestled like a living fossil in the clay of our most recently evolved, superior brains, was proposed in the 1960s by the neuroscientist Paul MacLean. Its scientific credulity holds about as much significance to me as that of the astrology app that sends me notifications each morning – it just provides a structure for me to think about my habits and how to change them. In short, the reptilian brain is the most primitive part of the brain. I visualise it quite literally as the lizard-like baby from Eraserhead, mewling and requiring constant attention from the other parts of the brain, the parts that have evolved over 10m years to quieten its cries.
The less regulated this part of the brain is, the more regrettable the desires. We are generally more capable of regulating these desires as we grow out of childhood, although for some people – myself included – it is harder than others. Desires can run away with themselves, and become all-consuming, without us really noticing. The caterpillar that simply wants a lovely apple on Monday is the same caterpillar that wants two pears on Tuesday, three plums on Wednesday, four strawberries on Thursday, five oranges on Friday and then, inevitably, a piece of chocolate cake, ice-cream, a pickle, Swiss cheese, salami, a lollipop, cherry pie, a sausage, a cupcake and a slice of watermelon on Saturday.
Giving in to our reptilian desires has been encouraged, rebranded as a sort of self-care both by a society that wants us to consume and those of us who enjoy consuming with impunity. But often we are simply experiencing anxiety dressed up as hedonism. If you have experience of any kind of addiction, this is obvious. Saying yes to every desire that occurs to us seems quirky and fun if it involves dyeing your hair orange and eating too many Haribo, but a little less so if instead what you’re doing is climbing into a stranger’s car to buy cocaine. The truth is though, cravings and their related behaviours don’t have to involve life-destroying habits to rob us of joy. I may no longer lose days of my life to bingeing booze and drugs, but the same lack of impulse control insidiously robs me of my time. I, like the majority of people, pick up my phone over and over again and open apps that I’ve just closed, scrolling and refreshing without agency. How did my phone even get into my hand? I watch reality TV instead of the films that I’ve been meaning to watch for years because my lizard brain tells me that it will feel good: instead what it often feels like is closer to nothing. It urges me to do things that require little energy and, in return, provide little in the way of reward.
Dopamine controls our desire for things, but it isn’t cognitive. It isn’t that it doesn’t know what’s good for us – it doesn’t even know what we actually enjoy. To submit to these desires and consider that submission as an act of self-care is extremely misguided. Our lizard brain doesn’t know what we like doing, and it doesn’t care. It has very little purpose and succeeds, ultimately, only to make a noise annoying enough to distract us from what we originally set out to do.
So how can I want what actually brings me joy? How can I quiet the Eraserhead baby – which nobody is convinced is actually a baby at all but instead simply various unhappinesses, swaddled – and reach for the things that provide lasting joy and satisfaction? If only I knew. We are taught to want, but not too much. We are rewarded for consuming, but judged for taking more than our fair share. It is a strange thing to navigate a world that encourages and shames us for the same behaviours, and difficult not to assign moral value to our urges – to categorise each desire as either good or bad. Instead I focus on remembering times when I have felt calm and fulfilled – not the sweet little drip, drip, drip of dopamine throughout the day but the deep, quiet satisfaction at the end of a difficult task, or a long journey with something beautiful at the end of it. Of course, it’s not about one or the other. Thankfully for me. I will try to live life mindfully, to create long-term goals, etc – but ultimately I will always serve my lizard-brain king.