The Reptilian Brain and How It Can Stop Your Child from Learning, Part Two


The reptilian or primitive brain, as we discussed in the previous blog, (link) was the first part of our brains to develop and handles our basic survival and safety issues. Like a snake sunning itself when it feels safe (as we do when we are at the pool), our reptilian brain can also retreat quickly when conditions become unsafe. Like a startled rattlesnake, it can lash out when scared or confronted. Like other reptiles, it is territorial and loves rituals (think teenage gangs).

I don’t want to give you the impression that the reptilian brain is bad or is no longer relevant to our technology-based lives. The primitive part of our brain is not only necessary for safety and survival, but it helps us thrive in many areas, such as rhythm, routine, and repetition. However, in order for our children to learn in a classroom, the reptilian brain must not be scared; it must feel safe and calm.

When we feel fear—as children who aren’t learning like other kids feel—we may lash out, retreat, defend our position, or operate by reacting (also a function of the reptilian brain); we’re just running scared. Seventy-five percent of all communication to the thinking part of our brain shuts down when we’re afraid or threatened, and the reptilian brain takes over. That’s just the way we’re designed, and it’s why you can’t learn when you’re scared.

As infants, the primitive brain develops as we move like reptiles—with our bellies to the ground. We’re “army crawling,” crawling on all fours, and beginning to sit up. At the same time, we’re determining whom and what is safe around us. When a baby feels safe, he or she can fall asleep, knowing all is well. The reptilian brain is content, secure, and calm.

Compare that to a child on the playground who is scared. He isn’t feeling safe and secure, and the reptilian brain takes over. He may be picking a fight, fleeing to escape a bully, or trying to hold back tears in an effort not to show weakness. The reptilian brain thinks he is in a fight for his life, and that state of high alert doesn’t magically turn off when the bell rings to go back to class.

When the reptilian brain is calm and feels safe, children learn quickly and retain what they know. Other approaches to dyslexia don’t address the reptilian brain; they focus on other aspects of dyslexia such as vision issues. By ignoring the reptilian brain’s issues and failing to remedy the developmental missteps that have occurred along the way, other approaches are like applying a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. Contact me today, and we can help your child’s reptilian brain feel safe.


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