Can you pick out the reptiles in your workplace (And no, not the ones who do finger pistols and prey on interns)? According to neurophysiologist Stephen Porges, if you want to be creative, you want to be on the lookout for the scaly types, and seek out the mammals instead.
Knowing the difference first requires a bit of Porges’ insight into the way your brain works. Your consciousness, you see, is much more than you’re conscious of.
Porges is founder of the polyvagal theory. His theory—named for the vagus nerve, the connector between your brain and your heart—describes our experience of the world as happening on multiple levels. There’s perception, where you evaluate and interpret; sensation, including all the feelings that make it into the theater of your mind; and then, underlying those two, what Porges calls neuroception, a system that, without your knowing, is constantly on the lookout for risk.
These layers reflect our biobehavioral evolution: neuroception does not require awareness and is shared with more primitive vertebrates including reptiles; cognition requires awareness and is uniquely mammalian. The reptilian brain reacts to protect—it will shoot you full of energy if there’s perceived danger—while the mammalian brain connects people and ideas. But that kind of connection can only happen if we feel safe; if you, as they say, let your guard down.
Which is why if you’re doing creative work—the kind that thrives on connecting people and ideas—you should be working in a safe, "mammalian" office. As Porges says, "we really are not creative and integrative and social unless we feel safe."
It’s safety, he finds, that animates our relationships with ourselves, with one another, and with our ideas (he outlines his views in the video below of a lecture from last summer’s Science of Compassion conference in Telluride, Colorado).
An industry consultant and an academic, Porges first proposed the polyvagal theory in 1994. His ideas have helped him to become a leader in his field: He’s published more than 200 academic journal articles, written a foundational technical text, and has been a cornerstone of the past year’s finest nonfiction, such as Frank Partnoy’s Wait, John Coates’s The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, and Barbara Fredrickson’s Love 2.0.
Since Co.Create is interested in what conditions help us be more creative, we asked the good professor to explain just how the reptilian and mammalian systems in our bodies manifest themselves in the work we do—and why the latter is more conducive to creativity than the former.
The earlier, reptilian parts of our nervous system are adapted to a solitary, risk-filled world—reptiles are, after all, loners. So that part of us is on constant lookout.
"Our nervous system detects security on many, many levels," Porges says, from physical security—an old part of you reads rumblings of the ventilation shaft as "predator"— to the social.
Just as success is largely social—Porges argues that we work not just for a paycheck but to earn the validation from our peers—so are our perceived dangers. Coming up short on a milestone could breed disrespect or, what’s worse, the ire (or fire) of your boss.
Indeed, with their power, managers can present creativity-squelching threats in gross and subtle ways: a shouty boss will throw your nervous system into full-on mobilization—it’s a survival adaptation, after all—while a manager that doesn’t make eye contact with employees or communicates with a false authenticity can produce threat responses.
When our defenses are turned off, we experience a state of safety. That safety becomes a platform for enabling experience—happiness, creativity, and expansiveness can emerge spontaneously. We can integrate what we’ve learned into our worldview. You can be what pyschologists call prosocial: engaging with the others, becoming vulnerable to one another, making predictions about a shared future. And because we feel stable, we can bring in the instability of new thinking.
But if we don’t feel safe, the adaptation is to survive the present danger: We become "aggressive, oppositional, and short-sighted," Porges says. And so, with good humor, he played a thought experiment with us: What would it be like to work in a reptilian office versus a mammalian office?
Here’s the (scaly) rub: while mammals need others from the day they’re born, reptiles are adapted to living on their own. So, as they grow—whether we’re talking about the culture of crocodiles or a corporation—they have lives that are "individually oriented and socially isolated," they live in a world, Porges says, "defined by risk and not sharing or benevolence or creativity," and so the defining features of a reptilian workplace are embedded in defense and fear.
Reptilian managers, Porges says, have a hard time with fluid ideas.
Conditioned to being defensive, suggestions would be taken as criticisms, and the main motivation would be to preserve "resources" over cultivating the growth of people, in increasing productivity rather than enhancing the practice of product development. Rather than trying to improve quality of life, a reptilian corporation would be motivated by profit.
The model is short-sighted, Porges says, because there would be no long-term plan to incorporate change—since to the reptilian manager "change is equivalent to uncertainty and uncertainty is dangerous." Even if change were necessary to succeed, it would be viewed as a threat.
The treatment of people, as well, would be fear-based: Porges says that a reptilian manager would be insensitive to employees, walled off from empathy, and would have a tough time trusting others or sharing goals.
Mammals, on the other hand, are more connected: Porges says that a mammalian corporate style would acknowledge the interdependent nature of the enterprise and build a work environment conducive to a shared state of safety for the people involved.
This investment in safety pays dividends, since a mammalian corporation—one that cares for the people inside of it—is known as an exciting place to work, it would then attract bold and talented individuals, increasing the potential for the company as a whole.
All that is to say that safety is key to growing ideas: By feeling safe, individuals will be able to create uncertainty in the work space with bold, experimental thinking. In this safety and the caring it implies, the mammal can outpace the reptile: New ideas would be welcomed, rather than feared.