08 October 2009

Humans do not have reptile brains

A neuro myth needs busting. Again.

At the Speaking About Presenting blog, Olivia Mitchell trots out the idea that we have a three part brain: an old, primitive reptilian brain, a mid brain, and a new brain. I am about to go over and be a pedant and leave a comment that while it’s a great story, it is wrong.

Yeah, I know, there I go with that blind obsession with the truth again.

I wrote a comment on the All In The Mind Blog about this, which I reused on this blog here, but I’ll save you all the bother of clicking the link and just repost it.

The basic premise discussed in this show – that human behaviour has an evolutionary history – is not terribly contentious. The specific model discussed in the program, Paul MacLean’s “triune brain,” is more problematic.

As typically expressed, MacLean’s model suggests that entire reptilian brain has been conserved through the evolution of the mammals, with new brain regions essentially added on to the existing core, like suburbs being added to a city.

There are a few problems with this model.

First, MacLean’s ideas seem to be highly influenced by old ideas that emphasized the “march of progress“ or the “great chain of being.” In particular, the MacLean model seems to be based on the notion that reptiles were the ancestors of mammals. It’s debatable whether reptiles are the ancestors of mammals, however. It may be that the two groups shared a common ancestor, then diverged. It's also somewhat misleading in that it lumps all reptiles together. Snakes, for instance, appear much later in the fossil record than the earliest mammals.

Second, the suggestion that the entire reptile brain is essentially the mammalian hind brain is not supported by modern neuroanatomy. To give an example, in MacLean's model, the limbic system is characterized as a “lower mammalian” part of the brain. There is evidence, however, that reptiles have a limbic system (Bruce and Neary, 1995; Lanuza et al., 1998).

MacLean’s “triune brain” hypothesis may have caught the popular imagination, but it has not proved useful in modern neurobiology.


Bruce LL, Neary TJ. 1995. The limbic system of tetrapods: A comparative analysis of cortical and amygdalar populations. Brain, Behavior and Evolution 46(4-5): 224-234.

Lanuza E, Belekhova M, Martinez-Marcos A, Font C, Martinez-Garcia F. 1998. Identification of the reptilian basolateral amygdala: an anatomical investigation of the afferents to the posterior dorsal ventricular ridge of the lizard Podarcis hispanica. European Journal of Neuroscience 10(11): 3517-3534.


Cextan said...

I was doing research about the Triune Brain model of Dr MacLean and the only problem with the model is miss-interpretation. If you review “The reciprocal modular brain in economics and politics”, in Chapter 3 named “MacLean´s Triune Brain Concep: In Praise and Appraisal”, by Gerald A. Cory, Jr. page 13, you will find the “Criticisms of MacLean´s Model”. Once the facts are exposed, the author take down one by one and shows that it is a valid model and not an outdated one. The model is a big contribution and it has been used in many other fields as psychology, economics and ecology.

So, I it is very pedant to say it is a "neuro-myth". Hope you can review the material.


Zen said...

Thanks for the reference; it helps! I have some plans for a longer follow-up on this topic, though probably in a different forum than this blog.

I don't pretend that this post is the last word, though I haven't yet come across anything that significantly changes the opinion in this post.

Lance said...

Thank you for speaking your mind.
It gives me hope that the human race has not completely lost it's mind.

My point being and agreeing with you that we are not reptilian. Else we would also be cold blooded and unfeeling....Like we would show no outward signs of LOVE and AFFECTION to our selfs or other forms of life. That is the distinction that makes us human beings.......Farmwork266@yahoo.ca