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Inner Lizards

There are a lot of memories seeping up through the hidden folds of my neocortex (the most highly evolved part of the human brain where consciousness dwells) and going, "Boo!" or "Howdy!"

I'm obsessed with memories.

Not mine, so much.

It's the concept of memories.

What the hell are they?

We may contemplate memories and analyze them in the neocortex and come up with swell ideas like Cartesian Skepticism or Cheeseburgers, but memories themselves are stored in the limbic system, in the hippocampus region to be precise. They call the limbic system "old mammalian brain." Meaning, it's what humans had for brains 100 million years ago, before evolution kicked in big time. They also called it "emotional brain," because it's where emotions are generated, in the amygdala region. There's other bits in the limbic system, bits that tell your body all's well; but contemplating (up here in the neocortex) that things like spontaneity and creativity dwell side by side with emotions and memories (down there in the limbic system), well... it doth make old mammalians of us all.

But I can't help thinking there isn't more to memories. I can't help imagining we share a common, ancient memory... older than dreams, older than the universe.I can't help imagining we share a common, ancient memory... older than dreams, older than the universe.

Deep in each and every one of our heads is the Reptilian Brain. This was scientifically proven by Ridley Scott in the first Alien movie when John Hunt thought he had a tummy ache. Turned out it was his inner reptilian trying to get out. In terms of evolution, the reptilian part of our brain is hundreds and hundreds of millions of years old.


I was walking through the vineyards above Cully yesterday, and I saw a lizard sunning itself in a stone wall. Hit me that me and it share the same brain. We've both got a spinal cord, pons, cerebellum, and a medulla oblongata. I could've dissected the critter then and there just to make sure, but it wouldn't have been nice. I mean, it's been a long cold winter, and the lizard was having a fine time working on its tan. Besides, I didn't have a knife. And watching the lizard just then, I realized (way up in my neocortex) that the reptilian part of my brain (and the only brain the lizard had) were both telling us, respectively, the same things at the same time... "Must breathe now," "Heart must beat now," "Run away now," and so on. The two of us were being told these things because in the deepest, most ancient part of our lizard brains, there exists a sense of instinct that drives all else... "Must not die."

And, watching the lizard (who was watching me with beady eyes), I was thinking, how does it have a survival instinct without a memory of death? I mean, I have memories of death. I've seen it, smelled it, knew with all my being it was coming to me in the next second. And, though I've been lucky enough to cheat death more times than I care to remember, I know, one day, the bastard will hunt me down and nail my ass to the wall. Memories of death (and, in my case, video images of merciless death that burn in the hippocampus region of my brain still) cause me to conceive of nothingness, or at least no-more-ness, and it scares the hell out of me.

But the lizard doesn't have a hippocampus region to store memories. And even if it did, it sure as hell didn't have a neocortex to contemplate nothingness. But on the level of "Must not die," me and the lizard were exactly the same. And that same instinct to survive no matter what, runs all the way down the evolutionary chain to the single cell amoebae.

Very trippy.

I read, somewhere, instinct was a behavior performed without benefit of experience or learning, and therefore an expression of innate biological factors. In other words, whilst instinct can be observed, it can't be explained.

(whiplash warning)

It's like the universe itself.

Quantum mechanics tells us the universe is nothing more than the cosmic dust of the Big Bang, born of a point of singularity 13.5 billion years ago. To my ears, point of singularity sounds an awful lot like innate biological factors. In other words, they're both science-speak for, "Terribly sorry, but that's all we seem to know at the moment."In other words, they're both science-speak for, "Terribly sorry, but that's all we seem to know at the moment."

Which is fine. Gives a writer like me the room to imagine, to create my own universe. It also keeps things like religion in business. Which is a whole other story, so forget I mentioned it. Thing is, in my universe that point of singularity wasn't a thing, it was a alive. It was a form of life from which both me and the lizard evolved. In my universe, the instinct of survival isn't an expression of innate biological factors; instinct is a cosmic memory, passed down to us through the stuff of the universe. Hydrogen, helium, and some other stuff, but mostly hydrogen and helium. The cosmic memory is this: Life is defined by nothingness.

(like I said, whiplash)

So sitting on this bench in Cully, watching the late afternoon light sparkle on Lake Geneva whilst the shadows of mountains on the far shore creep ever closer to chase the light away, I'm thinking about a line from The Watchers spoken by a morphine addicted tramp named Monsieur Gabriel. He stands on the altar of Lausanne Cathedral, in need of a fix and scratching his arms... "We are creatures of the unremembered beginning. We do not know where we come from, all we know is we are here."

Philosophy 101, courtesy of my inner lizard.

÷ ÷ ÷

Jon Steele worked as an award-winning cameraman for Independent Television News of London for 22 years. In 2002, he published the now cult classic of war reportage War Junkie. In 2003, he became disillusioned with television news, put his camera on the ground and quit. The Watchers is Steele's first novel.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Watchers Used Hardcover $6.50

Jon Steele is the author of The Watchers

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