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The primitive brain in action

June 24, 2007

For all our refinements as humans, we are still animals, still mamals, and are in posession of many instincts, courtesy of our primitive brain.  This portion of our brain assimilates information and allows us to act instinctively, to instantly take action, often the fight or flight reaction.   In the course of our daily lives,  higher brain functions are dominant, and we think about things before we do them.  However, at certainly times, such as when we are just entering or exiting sleep, our higher functions are disengaged and the primitive brain can take over.

This happened to me early this am, and it was a unique enough experience, I thought about sharing it here.  My cat usually wakes me up around 5 am to be fed, but this morning it was 3 am, and so having fed her, I didn’t expect to be disturbed again until morning.  So at about 5:15, when she jumped on the bed and began making quite a commotion, I was caught of guard.   I wasn’t fully awake, but realized something felt wrong and had started to get out of bed.  Suddenly, the smoke alarms sounded, and as all seven are networked throughout the house,  their klaxons were heard in the round. 

While still only semi-awake, and operating under the direction of the primative brain, I instantly processed the cat’s erratic behavior and the smoke alarms as indication of a fire.  The  fear emotional response was instant and overwhelming, and I launched toward the bedroom’s arched entrance, but failed to align with it completely.  My right forearm and shoulder impacted the edge of the wall.  My trajectory only slightly altered, I found myself in the long hallway that spans the width of the house, terminating in the stairwell to the second story.  I covered the distance in perhaps a dozen long strides, and found no evidence of fire.  By the seond or third step ascending the stairs, the fight or flight instincts had subsided, and rationality returned.  I searched the house purposefully, but now in a measured manner, making use of the lights as I entered and exited rooms.  Having assured myself there was indeed no emergency, my mind was able to consider  more mundane explainations, including the probability that one of the 9 volt back up batteries was low and had triggered a false alert. 

I suspect that many training programs are designed to help simulate stressful situations, and acclimate people to them, so that their higher brain functions will stay in control during these times.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2007 12:57 pm

    Interesting experience. I can’t say I’ve been woken and functioned only on my “primitive brain,” but lord knows I’ve bumped into plenty of stuff.

  2. June 25, 2007 3:28 pm

    Quite some time ago I read “The Dragons of Eden” by Carl Sagan. The book deals with the evolution of intelligence and, thus, the brain. If I can remember well, Sagan had pinpointed 3 “parts” of the brain, the two you had experience with here plus the most primitive one, that mainly handles all body functions.

    Although some of the book is a little bit out of date (brain science has moved slowly but moved nonetheless) it still remains valid.

    Regarding training I think it works the other way around. Take pilots for instance, they spend so many hours at simulators and in actual flight in order to make everything “muscular memory”; that way, on a critical situation, they can act without too much thinking.

    Also, sportsmen always state that when they rely on their “instinct” or “training” they do much better than when they actually think. I guess the body answers much better to the primitive brain than to the newer, evolved higher functions.

  3. June 25, 2007 3:55 pm


    I can see your point on muscle memory. I guess I was thinking in terms of live fire excercises in the military. If you think about getting in a fight, on one hand you want to behave instinctively, absent of formal defense training, but on the other hand, if you can keep your wits about you when the other guy doesn’t you may be able to de-escalate. Or perhaps while driving, if you find yourself in a panic situation, if you can remain thinking, you can make more choices. In my situation, had I been fully awake, I might have thought through things and got up and turned on lights instead of bolting like a startled rabbit.

  4. June 25, 2007 8:24 pm

    I see, my mistake, of course you don’t want soldiers acting JUST instinctively, or they’d run away from the action.

    Maybe both your primitive brain and higher brain were struggling for control? Making you look sort of “Frankenstein with spasms” 😉

  5. June 26, 2007 3:54 pm

    Esteban, I can attest that he did look like a Frankenstein with spasms, even as I was walking behind him repeating, “There is no fire, there is no fire.”

  6. sweetlybroken permalink
    June 27, 2007 12:44 pm

    I’m glad there was no fire.
    I have dogs and when they pitch a fit at soemthing in the night I “instinctively” bolt for the doorway, like yourself, I seldom clear it gracefully.
    You must feel pretty reassured that your primitive brain will cause you to function purposefully instead of freezing or scatter brained.
    Again, glad there was no fire.

  7. GWalker permalink
    June 21, 2011 10:57 pm

    I am a poet and I rely on those periods while falling to, and emerging from, sleep to allow me the creativity I need to get new ideas and work with existing ones. The poem I am working on now deals with the primitive mind as its subject, which is what brought me to this article. I use the half-sleep time as an opportunity to work with words, but not be held back by any inhibition or self-censorship.


  1. Myrtice Knie

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