Dancing With The Lizard: Flying and Your Brain

lizard brain

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lizard brain

I am not a doctor or a scientist, but in doing some research for another project I learned some interesting things about the brain that translates to this grand endeavor we call flying.

The Cerebral Cortex, the largest area of the brain, is where most thinking functions occur. The cortex consists of four lobes:

– The Frontal Lobe controls emotion, motivation, social functioning, expression of behavior, voluntary movement, and “executive” functions, such as initiation, planning, thought organization, and decision-making
– The Temporal Lobe controls memory, receptive language, sequencing, and musical awareness
– The Parietal Lobe controls sensation, academic skills such as reading, hearing, and awareness of spatial relationships
– The Occipital Lobe controls visual perception


This is all the stuff that you use to fly the airplane.


The limbic system, which houses many parts including what Neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean calls the reptilian or lizard brain, is deep inside our existing brains and is claimed to be the oldest part. This is the area responsible for very primitive functions, one of which is our fight-or-flight response. This hair-trigger response served us well when we needed to flee from the saber tooth tiger, but in today’s world it isn’t as necessary and often gets in the way. There are all kinds of other nasty physical and psychological things that occur with our limbic brain kicks into high gear, but we’ll focus on what’s detrimental to us pilots.


One of the key dangers of the fight-or-flight response is once it’s activated it begins to bypass our rational mind. It also exaggerates fear and distorts our thoughts. Panic can ensue. 


Panicking at the controls of an airplane is akin to poring gasoline on yourself and lighting it – nothing good is going to happen. I wonder how many airplanes have come down as a result of a panic-stricken pilot. We’ll never really know as the reports just say, “VFR into IMC” or “pilot error” or “loss of control” or “structural failure.” They never say, “the pilot froze up” or “the pilot panicked.”


Since unlike tonsils, we aren’t going to remove our amygdala from our limbic brain, we must figure out how to avoid triggering the primitive parts when we should be using the more rational and reason-based sections of our grey matter. To be fair, we need this function, as some fear to keep us safe. It’s a key component of survival, even today, but runaway fear, particularly in an aircraft is not conducive to longevity.


For a pilot, one of the best countermeasures is self-confidence. If we are confident in what we are doing we won’t be likely to hit the panic button triggering primitive brain responses. Too much self-confidence can obviously put us into situations where our brains are writing checks our bodies can’t cash, so it’s all about staying in balance.


How do we get a good balance of self-confidence? I’m glad you asked.


Flying more: Easier said than done sometimes, but more stick time equals more skill and that takes a load off the old lizard brain

Training: Stay in the books and keep yourself in a quasi state of training. Go out and practice your craft

Exploration: Fly different types or categories of aircraft. This is a huge confidence builder

Practice on Instruments: If you are an Instrument pilot you need to keep your instrument skills sharp. This is not the place to skimp on currency if you plan to fly in the soup

Know Thy Aircraft: The better you know your machine the more confident you’ll be if things start to go wrong

Experience: Along the lines of flying more, but in a broader sense. Having more experience certainly provides a foundation to remain confident when the crap hits the fan

Another countermeasure is good judgement – not something easy to teach. Poor judgement is likely the best source of natural selection among pilots. If you make bad decisions, thus putting yourself into scary situations, you are certainly flirting with the reptile in you.

Other strategies for care and feeding of the lizard brain include:


Flying with other pilots: Flying with another pilot generally boosts your feeling of security (hopefully not in a “hey, watch this” kind of way). Not to mention that it provides help if you need it

Be thorough: Doing a good preflight, getting a good weather briefing, etc. These things will serve you well when things aren’t going great. Fear of the unknown can be powerful, so make sure you know what’s going on. Eliminate surprises

Don’t fly broken aircraft: If launch with a known mechanical issue and something starts going more wrong…let’s just say you won’t feel real confident

Avoid pushing weather: One of the best way to tickle your Limbic brain is to throw yourself into crappy weather. Things can go to crap in a hurry and even though these Technically Advanced Aircraft theoretically keep us safer through more and better information, it also can encourage going where angels fear to tread


There are even coping strategies that you can use to help get your neo-cortex back into the driver’s seat, if needed, but for pilots it’s best we work the prevention side and keep the lizard calm.


Do you have techniques for keeping your cool in the cockpit? Throw them down below in the comments.


by Brent Owens <click on my name to email me>


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