The Lizard Brain

Dexter’s got some mad gut instincts

I’ve always thought the “gut” instinct was anatomically misplaced. My decisions tend to spawn from my brain, and the thought of clutching my stomach and drawing a decision from there seems all wrong to me. 
This might be why I tend to shy away from the idea of gut instincts.
It’s not gut, it’s the lizard brain
But here’s where the idea sits incredibly well with me. I was watching Dexter (a deliciously clever and twisted show), and I had an a-ha moment when he began explaining the feeling he has when he senses a killer. The process for Dexter’s maniacal ways goes something like this:
  1. He senses something in his lizard brain.
  2. He backs it up with hard evidence.
  3. He kills the bad guy.
Interestingly, I find this process often analogous for start-ups. We spend so much time trying to make our business a science of success, but what took us down the path in the first place? Why did we decide to do the industry we do?
  1. We felt something compelling in our lizard brain.
  2. We found data points and customers to support market opp, pain/solution, etc.
  3. We killed it (in the best way possible).

So, what is this lizard brain?
The classical “Triune Theory” from the 60’s claims that humans have three layers to their brains: the evolved mammal, the ancient ape, and the most basic of beings, the reptile. The reptile brain is this lizard brain.

It’s associated with the area of the brain that houses the amygdala. Go ahead: reach far back into those awkward days of high school, when you had braces and biology classes. Now remember that this region is associated with emotion, memory retention, and fun things like sexual orientation, social interactions, and drinking problems (the fun things being speculative studies that suggest assocations).

But the INTERESTING thing is that abnormally large amygdalas have been linked to heightened creativity. Think about it. At first glance, the suggestion is that more emotional people are more creative (though looking at actors and artists, this corollary seems to make sense). But I would argue that the more in touch we are with that deeper, almost volatile side of our instincts, the better we are at creation. The better we are at startups.

Look, startups are difficult. And not just because probabilities are stacked against you, resources escape you, and competition rises at every corner. It’s how we DEAL with those things. It’s how we RISE to the occasion, and get inspired to put our asses on the line everyday to move forward. This takes instinct, it takes thrill, and, occasionally, it takes embracing your fears.

While people like Seth Godin focus on quieting the fear that lives in the lizard brain, they also forget the creativity, inspiration, and instinct that are so essential to unlock creativity.

So go ahead, be yo badass lizard-brained self.

Startups are part art, part science
I certainly applaud efforts in the startup community to quantify the startup game to a science. To make a scientific method out of it. I myself agree with a lot of principles from Eric Ries’ Lean Startup, and think they are key to taking the passion and give it definition and life.

But it doesn’t say much about the actual conception of a startup. Forgive the birth metaphor, but it’s the best way to describe it. Pre-data, pre-customer interviews, we had a different kind of fuel that…lit our fire.

Let me ask you: What’s that initial feeling that drew you to your idea? Was it all data, or was there something more than that?


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