Influencing the Reptilian Brain

Young Katy’s eyes are locked on the treat sitting on the gray metal desk in front of her.  It looks like such a tasty morsel.  It reminds her of the ones her mom puts in her hot chocolate on cold mornings.  She wants to eat it so badly, then she remembers what the man in the lab coat told her.

“If you wait until I get back, you can have two mini-marshmallows.”

He is taking forever.  Perhaps she could eat this one now, and then get another one when she returns home?  Maybe he isn’t coming back?  Maybe when he returns she won’t get anything?  She kicks her 4-year-old legs, squirms in her chair, and hums her favorite song with her eyes closed.  Then finally she hears the door squeak open behind her.

“Congratulations,” says the man in the lab coat as he casually strolls into the room, “since you were patient, now you get two mini marshmallows.  He hands her the two soft treats, and she gratefully gobbles them down.

This same experiment was carried out dozens of times over four decades by Dr. Walter Mischel of Stanford University.  There are two very interesting discoveries that were made by Dr. Mischel through this experiment.  First, those children who had the will power to hold off and wait for two marshmallows were more successful than those who did not.  How much more successful?  The studies showed that those children who could wait were more socially competent, self-assertive, and capable of dealing with frustration.  In fact, according to Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, where I first heard the story, those patient children also scored on average 210 points higher on their SAT’s.  That small marshmallow turns out to be a pretty strong predictor, and to understand why- we need to understand how the brains function.  Second, he learned that the survival instinct that pushes children to eat that first marshmallow is a very strong one.  So what is going on in the human brain? How can understanding that help us as professionals?

If we understand inner-workings and the conflicts within the human brain, suddenly  influencing people becomes far easier.  Attorney Don Keenan, co-author of the book “Reptile, the 2009 Manual of the Plaintiff’s Revolution” shows us just how powerful.  Don Keenan is one of the most successful plaintiff’s attorneys in America having obtained 145 verdicts/settlements over a $1,000,000.00, eight over $10,000,000.00 and one verdict over $100,000,000.00. In addition, he has twice been chosen “Trial Lawyer of the Year.” One factor he attributes to his great success? Understanding the human brain.

The human brain is made up of three parts, or a “triune brain,” as first discussed by Dr. Paul Maclean in 1952.  The outer formation of the brain, called the neocortex, is like the brain of higher mammals and is devoted to higher order thinking.  Things like linguistics and verbal memory are handled by the neocortex.  Next is the limbic system which controls emotion, some aspects of personal identify, and many critically important memory functions.  Finally we have the R-complex (including the brain stem and the amygdala) which you can think of as your primitive “fight or flight” brain.  This is the reptilian brain.  Have you ever been too scared to speak?  That is because your R-complex has taken over.  

Why would a child choose 1 marshmallow over 2 marshmallows?  Because the R-complex or survival instinct, is overriding the child’s rational neocortex.  Think of this as the R-complex hijacking the better judgment of the neocortex.  Have you ever made the excuse, “I didn’t know what I was thinking?”  Turns out you WERE thinking, just not with the correct brain.  According to Valerie Swanner who is spearheading the “Reptile” project at the plaintiff’s law firm of Sigfreid & Jensen, understanding the power of this reptilian brain holds a key to influencing jurors, judges, and really anybody.

So why is the reptile brain so important?  Well, as Val pointed out to me, “Dr. Eric Kandel and the neuroscientists following in his work have now proven that the older parts of the brain circuits are several times faster than the analytical components of the brain. So when push comes to shove, the more primitive brain takes over. But there is a key, a “Rosetta Stone” that can unite the R-complex, the limbic system and the neo-cortex.  And that’s story.  The reason, in fact, that stories can elevate to the level of myth is because they can crack and satiate all three brains. You must tell a story when presenting a case to keep all brains attention.”

This makes sense, doesn’t it?  How many of you have sat in on an outstanding lecture before?  Did it include great stories?  So how can we improve our stories so that they resonate, not just with the rational mind, but with the reptilian mind?  Tomorrow, Friday the 26th of February, Valerie Swaner will be joining my weekly conference call to share the techniques that will help us craft stories that  resonate with the Reptilian Brain- and share a little bit about how their Plaintiff’s firm is implementing the concepts from David Ball & Don Keenan book, “Reptile, The 2009 Manual of the Plaintiff’s Revolution.” I have just been informed that we may have the author himself, Don Keenan joining us on the call as well. As always, if you have any questions please email them to and we will discuss them on the air tomorrow, February 26th. CLICK HERE to sign up for the call. The first 10 callers get a free mini-marshmallow.

Adrian Dayton is a New York attorney, and author of the book Social Media for Lawyers: Twitter Edition.  His normal weekly calls will be on hold for the month of March as he travels to Australia to promote his book.  You can find out more details of his trip at


7 Responses to “Influencing the Reptilian Brain”

  1. Adrian, I started off mildly annoyed with this post: then I got to the story part, and it really grabbed me. Let me explain.

    As a philosophy major, when I hear someone “explain” something by re-describing it in purely physiological terms (or chemical, or physics terms), it annoys me–because they they have explained nothing. They have merely translated from one ‘language’ to another. What we want as an explanation is something that shows causality; or that aggregates parts into a whole; or that explains the function that a part plays in a broader system; or that puts something into a context, like history. Translating kids’ behaviors into physiological descriptions doesn’t add anything.

    But then you moved into stories, and I really sat up. I know about the power of stories, from several perspectives, and from personal observation and experience. I know that story-telling makes people accept ideas that they would normally reject if not their own.

    But–I had never thought of stories as connecting two kinds of thinking (or two parts of the brain, if that’s the language you prefer). Suddenly, I see a whole where I previously saw no connections. Suddenly, I’m buying the “explanation,” because it did a lot more than translate. It contexted.

    Fascinating! Thank you Adrian!

    • Charles,

      Thanks for the comment. Science and philosophy aren’t really topics I generally cover on my blog- but this idea really resonated with me. I have always loved great stories, and I think this physiological answer helps me better understand why. Communication can never be “complete” without stories. What I mean by that is that in one sense we can understand things on a rational level- but it takes the story to connect the dots for our other brain to really accept the concept.

      Now I have one more reason to make sure I craft good stories.

  2. ericrumsey says:

    I like the quote below in your penultimate paragraph — It’s unclear whether it comes from Valerie Swanner or Eric Kandel or is original with you — Can you clarify? ….

    … there is a key, a “Rosetta Stone” that can unite the R-complex, the limbic system and the neo-cortex. And that’s story. The reason, in fact, that stories can elevate to the level of myth is because they can crack and satiate all three brains. You must tell a story when presenting a case to keep all brains attention.”

    • Great question. That quote is from Val- but she herself attributes everything she knows to David Ball and Dan Keenan who wrote the book. I’ll have to ask her if she was paraphrasing them- or if it was her own.

  3. Muffet says:

    Wow. Ya learn something new everyday. Excellent deduction. I was surfing for the r-complex after having done an exercise for it from the Release Technique. The author, a physicist, suggested we imagine vacuuming out our r-complex area, which I intuitively knew where the area was, to rid ourselves of the garbage that goes into our minds. The process brought me to tears, so I wanted to look into more about it and stumbled upon your article. A big thanks!


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