Human Thought and Animal Emotion

Lizards and mice and monkeys, oh my. When our human thought and animal emotion are at odds, it’s easy to get depressed. But learning techniques to tame the animals in our head can help us achieve greater well-being.

human thought

Monkey Mind

One of the oldest analogies for what goes on in my brain when I’m unable to focus is monkey mind. I swing from one thought to another while my medial prefrontal cortex flails to concentrate and put the critter back in its cage. My human thought may think it’s in charge, but, from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s the new kid on the block. If I don’t use it to understand what’s going on in my more established, primordial brain regions, my animal emotions will take the driver’s seat.

Taxi Driver

Author Rick Hanson motivated me to take my monkey mind seriously by introducing me to the brain of a London taxi driver. Memorizing how to navigate London’s tangle of streets and landmarks enlarges the spacial memory center of the driver’s brain much like weight training enlarges our muscles.

That metaphor for how changing my thoughts changes my brain was the incentive I needed to incorporate the original mindfulness exercises into my daily routine.

An animal analogy Hanson used in his latest book Resilient is similarly useful for understanding and satisfying the emotion centers in my brain.

Animal Emotion

Abraham Maslow imagined a pyramid to illustrate our hierarchy of needs. But in the twenty-first century, brain scans are revealing that our emotional centers are much more like a zoo than a king’s tomb. And thinking of the brain in animal terms paints a more accurate picture of what’s going on in our skull right now.

Lizard Brain

When things go bump in the night, the first responder is lizard brain, ready to fight, flee or freeze.

Lizard Brain fight, flight or freeze

We sometimes tease our lizard brain by going to horror movies for jump scares or riding roller coasters. In controlled settings, tricking the lizard into releasing adrenaline is a rush. It’s easy under such circumstances for our rational brain to assure this animal emotion that the threat is not real. A sigh of relief or a good laugh will do it.

When we perceive a threat is genuine, whether it’s real or imagined, the adrenaline rush is just as thrilling but not as fun. Our lizard brain takes control.

Mouse Brain

I crave cheese enough to put in on my grocery list when I’m running low. But I don’t crave it nearly as much as a mouse.

mouse brain cravings

We sometimes use our mouse brain to crave things other than cheese. Social media engineers at Facebook constantly retool their interface to entice this animal emotion of craving. Netflix cues up another show as soon as one draws to a close.

To understand how your own mouse brain works, complete these sentences.

I crave __________ like a mouse craves cheese.

When I crave _________, mouse brain’s at the wheel.

Monkey Brain

The brain region that constantly updates our relationship status with all the members of our tribe is something we share with apes (who don’t have tails) and monkeys (who do). It’s the animal emotion of belonging.

monkey brain relationships

Monkey brain is always on the lookout for clues it’s fitting in with friends, connected to family, and has enough status within the tribe to attract a mate.

Monkey brain takes precedence when we fear being shunned by our tribe.

Imaginary Mind

According to social psychologist Dan Gilbert, humans are the only animal that thinks about the future and has the ability to imagine events.

Our imagination of what ifs led to science and western medicine (to patch lizard brain’s body up when we unsuccessfully fight, flee or freeze). We’ve streamlined the production of cheese and refrigeration so that mouse brain can always satisfy its craving. We’ve invented social media and texting so that monkey brain can monitor its relationships 24/7.

Imaginary Stress

But, according to Gilbert, our human brain is notoriously unsuccessful at imagining what will make us happy.

We imagine all the negative, frustrating, or futile things that will happen if we interact with others. This tricks lizard brain with our social anxiety and we remain frozen in our home, our room, or our bed.

We imagine the pleasure promised by the shiny objects we see advertised. But no matter how much we accumulate or how far in debt we go to buy them, mouse brain is never satisfied.

We imagine that staying in touch with friends and family via social media or texting is the best thing since, well, cheese. But somehow when they don’t text back immediately, or like our posts, we feel unloved. And even when they do respond, our monkey brain senses something’s missing.

Over Simulation

“A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thought,” British philosopher Alan Watts said, “So he loses touch with reality, and lives in a world of illusions.”

We have an advantage over our animal cousins when it comes to the future. But if we skillfully interpret our primordial drives, they can teach us how to live in the now.   

Lizards who aren’t faced with actual peril know how to chill out. Mice may be on the lookout for cheese, but they don’t waste time seeking things that don’t provide real sustenance. Monkeys stay in actual physical touch with their community through grooming, which builds trust, reduces anxiety, and builds self-esteem.

Taming the Animals

To paraphrase Rick Hanson, satisfying our emotional needs involves using our imaginative problem solving skills to:

  • Calm the lizard.
  • Feed the mouse.
  • Hug the monkey.
Ten Minute Exercise

This exercise gives us practice at identifying our present emotional state to determine which critter is running the show. Once we’ve done that, we can employ our human imagination to satisfy our animal emotion.

1. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.

2. Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.

3. Note how your mind and body feel right now.

4. Take a few deep breaths to establish where you notice the sensation of breathing.

5. Breathe normally, calmly awaiting any emotion that might arise.

6. When an emotion arises, pay close attention to its animal characteristics.

Calming the Lizard

If there’s a sense of fight, flight, or freeze in the body. Calm the lizard.

The military trains in a box breathing technique to calm the lizard brain in times of actual physical danger.   

Breathe in through the nose while slowly counting to four. Hold the breath for a slow count of four. Exhale for a slow count of four. Pause for a count of four. Repeat at least three times or until the lizard is calm.

Tip: it’s important to habituate this in a controlled setting because the first thing lizard brain shuts down in the wild is your ability to remember this technique.

Here’s the military strength version for more detail.


Feeding the Mouse

If you experience craving. Feed the mouse.

When a healthy craving arises, such as a craving for food when you’re hungry, exercise, generosity, or friendly social interaction, think of a small, practical step you can take to fulfill it before returning your attention to the breath.

When unhealthy cravings arise for things that merely distract us without satisfying us, like substance abuse, junk food, or the latest, coolest shiniest thing. Instead of feeding it, go SURFing instead.

See what’s happening. Notice how and where your body responds when you imagine the thing you crave.

Understand whether this craving is a skillful means to satisfy your current emotion or a convenient substitute. (Cigarette smoking relieves stress, but so does box breathing. Prescription pain killers can dull emotional pain, but so can group aerobic exercise.)   

Relax around it. Take some slow, deep breaths and be aware of the changing bodily sensations without giving in to them or trying to push them away.

Find a little freedom. Use the knowledge you gain from the above steps to choose the most skillful way to feed your mouse.

Here’s a quick holiday edition of this exercise by Dan Harris of the 10% Happier podcast.


Hugging the Monkey

If you experience social anxiety. Hug the monkey.

Place your flat palm over your heart. This activates the mammalian (monkey brain) care-giving system. People often do this automatically when someone shares news of a personal hardship with them.

Give yourself a hug and slowly stroke your hands on your arms.

For more self-soothing touch, this video has some tips.

And Kristen Neff has other ideas for practicing self-compassion.

7. When the timer sounds, note how your mind and body feel right now before you continue with your day.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.