Do we have a reptilian brain?

The reptilian brain is a myth that should not be taken seriously and yet is referred to by many writers and is even seen in educational sites for children. It is the idea that we have three brains: a reptilian one, the paleomammalian one and the mammalian one. The story goes that these were acquired one after another during evolution. The details differ with the writer. But it is all a myth based on an idea from the ’70s of Paul MacLean which he republished in 1990. Over the years in has been popularized by Sagan and Koestler among others.


So we get self-help like this: “Because until recently in our history, we had been conditioned to operate and function mainly out of the reptilian brain. We had been operating/ manifesting out of the ‘survival’ mode section of the brain. Once you can understand this concerted mental oppression, you can begin to re-train your mind (free yourself from constant reptilian brain generated reaction) and re-set your innate human gift of creative power.” And information for children like this: “Lower animals, such as fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds, don’t do much “thinking,” but instead concern themselves with the everyday business of gathering food, eating, drinking, sleeping, reproducing and defending themselves. These are instinctual processes. Therefore, their brains are organized along the major centers that control these functions. We humans perform these functions as well, and so have a “reptilian” brain built into us. That means we have the same parts of the brain found in reptiles, namely the brain stem and the cerebellum.


Before our present knowledge of the brain and of evolution, the triune brain did not seem a bad idea and it was a simple model to understand. It no longer makes sense but it is still out there being passed on like right-brained vs left-brained and other myths.


One problem with the reptilian brain is that we are not evolved from reptiles. The last common link between mammals and reptiles is called amniotes. They were like amphibians but did not need to lay their eggs in water. In other words, they were the first truly land-dwelling vertebrates and all terrestrial vertebrates evolved from them. They did not have a neocortex but they had all the other anatomical parts of the brain. The amniotes evolved into two groups: the diapsids which further evolved into four lines - turtles, lizards/snake, crocodiles, birds; and the synapsids which evolved into mammals. Mammal evolution is separate from reptiles from the earliest terrestrial vertebrates. What is more, the neocortex makes its appearance very early in the synapsids line. The triune story of what animals had what sort of brain is simply not what evolutionary biology has found.


Another problem is the divisions of function that the triune model makes. The reptile brain is said to be only concerned with survival, to be reflexive, to act without thought. It is said to contain the basal ganglia and the lower parts of the brain. This would include the cerebellum and the cerebellum is an important sophisticated part of the brain – concerned with most things we do, not reflexive, and essential to many types of thought. The paleomammalian brain was also called the limbic system (another MacLean coinage) and was supposed to deal with feelings and emotions. But the limbic system includes an important part of consciousness and of memory. The neocortex can do very little without those parts of the brain that were labeled limbic. Finally the mammalian brain was said to be the neocortex but the neocortex cannot really be thought of as a brain, as if it could function without the paleocortex and the thalamus. It was said to do all the thinking.


The model presumes that birds and reptiles cannot feel or think, which is a preposterous idea. And early mammals could feel, it was supposed, but not think, again not believable. Birds and many reptiles (perhaps all) have a brain area which does not anatomically resemble the neocortex but which develops from the same part of the embryonic brain and has the same functions as the neocortex. All the descendants of amniotes have essentially the same architecture of brain with the same functions. There are differences in proportions, sizes, connections, fine-scale anatomy but not a gross difference of kind in the brains of land vertebrates.


Forget all about the triune model of the brain.


12 thoughts on “Do we have a reptilian brain?

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  3. bolko

    Excellent post. Too many people believe in this nonsense, but I am happy there are some knowledgable people trying to dispel those myths in the endless see of loonie theories online. If you type reptile brain in a search engine, you will understand what I mean. There are people who seriously believe that we have three brains which are semi-independent. Not only this model is too simplistic, but it continues to underrate reptiles as creatures incapable of any thought or emotion. It also denies most of the mammals a developed neocortex, even though we know that neocortical expansion took place in many more orders than primates. In light of this, you did very good pointing out the separate evolution of birds and reptiles and their similar brain connectivity, because there is another strong myths stating that mammals evolved from reptiles.
    I am baffled on why Carl Sagan, a very celebrated popularizer of science, promoted such a pseudoscientific idea. Also some websites having content which seeks to inform the reader about neuroscience, e.g. the brain from top to bottom, contain a lot of material about the supposed triune brain.

    From all this pseudoscience, only the limbic system was kept at the end. Probably because it is a system with various components through out the brain with a somewhat clear function.

    1. Andrew David Shiller, MD

      It’s clear from modern research that many of the assumptions within Maclean’s Triune Brain have been proven false.

      Calling his model “pseudoscience” reveals an ironically poor understanding of science. Science evolves too. Scientists make models and hypotheses, which shape and drive experimentation and gathering of data to clarify what’s really going on.

      Carl Sagan promoted a model that was best guess at the time. Remember that he published Dragons of Eden in the late 1970s. Since then, Neuroscience and brain mapping have exploded with new knowledge.

      Modern neuroscience has proven many of Maclean’s assumptions false. And there are also aspects of the model that are accurate. There is a nice summary here from Neurobiologist Paul King of UC Berkeley.

      While the model is not accurate from a developmental and purely anatomic perspective, it is often clinically useful. From a therapeutic and learning point of view, people do tend toward three global kind of behaviors which might be called “logical”, “emotional/connective”, and “survival-oriented”. Of course the model needs to be interpreted to reflect modern scientific reality.. This article provides some good examples of how **not** to quote and understand it.

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  5. don salmon

    Your comments are interesting in light of the fact that Jaak Panksepp - widely considered one of the most brilliant, if not the most, specialists in ‘affective neuroscience’ in the world - defends the triune brain theory, and specifically, defines the notion of the “limbic system” against Joseph LeDoux’s critique.

    in any case, the fact that so many world class neuroscientists agree with Panksepp doesn’t mean he’s correct. Perhaps he’s wrong and you’re right. However, I think it does mean that your casual dismissal of ideas he finds to be accurate may be a bit problematic (also, I didn’t see in your background any experience in neuroscience research - thus, again, if a world class neuroscientist disagrees with you, I would think that would at least call for a bit of reflection).

    I should add, in case the above sounds overly harsh, you write well, and come across as quite thoughtful and intelligent. I just thought it would be good to reconsider some of what you’ve written on this topic.

    1. JKwasniak Post author

      The reptilian brain is a evolutionary theory (it is a particular view of how the mammalian brain evolved) and it is strongly rejected by many scientists, comparative evolutionary neurobiologists in particular. Neuropsychiatric scientists have come to the theories defense but have not overcome the problems that evolutionary data raises. Elements of the theory may work for psychiatry (Jaak Panksepp is thought of as a neuropsychiatist) but the theory does not work in for neurobiologists. It implies a evolutionary history that is not credible.

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  7. dave

    I noticed an “intelligent design” website is trying to use this pseudo science in an attempt to link it up to materialism and evolution in an attempt to debunk evolution and materialism,frustratingly when I tried to comment on that there I could not, so I will say it here . To say that there is an innate center of the brain for fear and such that is reptilian is agnostic ,mechanical ,and reverts to idealism not materialism, and has absolutely NOTHING to do with science and evolution.

  8. Sudhakar Reddy

    Reptilian brain does exist in humans- triune brain need not be viewed as evolutionarily progressing but the old reptilian and mammalian parts are certainly carried in the primate evolution!!
    A new city is mostly built retaining many parts of the old city and there will be certain modifications even of the old buildings and structures!!
    Evolution is also like that !!
    How else can we explain the existence of pineal body or many structures in human body ?

    1. JKwasniak Post author

      What you say is true but does not add up to a ‘reptilian mind’. We have one mind it includes the whole brain. There is no separate mind lurching in the basement.


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