Art credit: Surachai, 123RF
Crocodiles can’t solve puzzles. Poetry and calculus serve them no useful purpose. What a crocodile needs is instantaneous physiological response and for that a croc’s brain is marvelous. It does exactly what it needs to do: manage eating, sleeping, procreating and surviving. But beyond keeping the beast safe and satisfied, a crocodile brain has no other role.
Lovely, you say, but what does this have to do with communication theory? Plenty. You see, in addition to our “thinking” brains, each of us possesses a fully functioning crocodile brain. Not only that, but the crocodile brain is a zillion times faster than the “thinking” brain, meaning that it is giving your body orders long before your cerebral processes are even aware there's a situation.
Let’s look at an example: a sudden encounter with a bear.
If your intellect is in charge, it will say something like, “Ah, yes, ursus americanus, a medium-sized bear native to North America! Not to worry, less than one human per year is killed by black bears.” But long before your intellectual brain gets philosophical, your reptilian brain has made sure that you are not the “one human per year”. Well before your cerebral cortex began to get in gear, your reptile brain ordered a release of adrenaline, jacked up your heart-rate, pumped up your oxygenation, cut off all distractions, and made you ready for fight or flight. Forget the ursus americanus intellectual stuff, we’re getting you out of here alive!
For survival purposes, of course, this is all good. The problem is that the reptilian brain never quits. Guess what produces road rage? Or why (depending on your preferences) physiological responses are triggered by just a glimpse of a busty cleavage or some tanned and oiled muscles? Just a whiff of french fries will crush your willpower long before your intellect reminds you that you don’t need any more hydrogenated starch. And when you've finished watching a horror movie, you realize you’re physically exhausted. The list is endless, but the point is that your crocodile brain never stops.
And while it can keep you out of trouble, it just as easily gets you into trouble.
As you may imagine, the crocodile brain doesn’t like new things, and it’s definitely not politically correct. If you’re not from around here, my inner crocodile doesn’t like you. For crocodiles, that “better safe than sorry” reflex has kept millions of them alive. For humans, the crocodile brain often the does the opposite-- the Holocaust, for example, was pure crocodile.
Unscrupulous communicators play the crocodile brain to great advantage. Imagine the power of a campaign where the politician speaks to deep-seated fears and anxieties of his audience, demonizing all the others as Crooked Hillary, Lying Ted, Little Marco, and so on. Get them chanting, "Lock her up!"
Never underestimate the power of the appeal to the crocodile brain.
Simply becoming aware of the power of the reptile brain can be personally transformative. Even more transformative is learning to rein in your own crocodile and giving your higher brain more say in the decision-making process. And when you begin to consider that your listener is constantly under the influence of his reptilian brain, you will become far more effective as a communicator.
Never forget the crocodile within yourself, and never forget the crocodile within your listener.
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.