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Overcoming the Amygdala Part 1


There’s a lot of talk these days about ‘mindfulness’ and there always has been lot of talk about meditation. It’s worth taking a look at the different approaches to both, by way of discovering what exactly they are for and why their use has become more prevalent. Finding that out can tell us some interesting things about ourselves and perhaps give us a way of living a better life.

Mindfulness and meditation are often used to mean the same thing and there are several interpretations as to what that is, but they boil down to mindfulness as a ‘being aware’ of thoughts, feelings, behaviour, and everything in one’s environment. Mindfulness could be said to be about being fully engaged in the here and now — minus one very important factor: judgement of ourselves. It’s a non-judgemental paying attention to the present moment, if you like.

Removing the judgemental element, or trying to, means that it becomes possible to encourage or allow tenderness and kindness toward ourselves. It’s like turning a loud radio off so that we can hear other voices in the room.

Mindfulness is also supposed to release ‘happy’ chemicals in the brain, lower blood pressure, improve digestion, and relax tension.

Meditation is similar, but encourages an awareness of ‘nothing’. Both meditation and mindfulness can support each other. In its many forms, meditation urges stillness, allowing the mind to empty of thoughts, and so on.

What I wanted to examine briefly here is why we feel we need either.


The Amygdala Function


There are arguments about whether there’s a mental basis or a purely physical basis for what follows. Let’s take a look at the physical side and come to our own conclusions.

The amygdala is a collection of nuclei found deep within the temporal lobe in the brain. The term amygdala comes from Latin, meaning ‘almond’, because part of the amygdala has an almond-like shape. (There are actually two amygdalae—one in each cerebral hemisphere.) It’s part of the limbic system, a group of structures in the body often associated with emotion. It is best known for its role in the processing of fear, though that turns out to be an oversimplification, as we will see.

In the 1930s, Heinrich Kluver and Paul Bucy removed the amygdalae of rhesus monkeys and saw drastic effects on their behaviour: the monkeys became more docile, displaying little fear. Over the following decades of research, the standard scientific line became this: when human beings are exposed to a fearful stimulus, the amygdala sends signals to areas of the brain to trigger a ‘fight-or-flight’ response which usually includes increased heart rate and respiration to prepare for action.

The important thing to note is that it seems that information about potentially frightening things in the environment can reach the amygdala before we are even consciously aware that there’s anything to be afraid of, through a pathway that runs from the thalamus to the amygdala. Sensory information about fearful stimuli may be sent along this pathway to the amygdala without going through the cerebral cortex — which means that we get a fear reaction before we even have time to think, to observe, to reason.

Of course, if we really are in great danger we don’t have time to stop and think, so this is a good thing. If your house suddenly catches fire, or a sabre-toothed tiger suddenly leaps out at you, you need to respond fast — so this trigger mechanism has its uses. But the amygdala also retains primitive memories associated with events — like Pavlov’s dogs, it connects sounds, smells, any sensory information with whatever the perceived danger is. So if a particular piece of music was playing while your house caught on fire, or the sabre-toothed tiger appeared on a hot, sunny day, forever after the amygdala will associate that music with fire and danger and hot, sunny days with menacing predators.

You can see how this plays a role in anxiety: anxiety is a dread that accompanies thinking about a potential threat—one that may or may not be real. Sensory information floods in and the amygdala can trigger the alarm even when, rationally speaking, no real danger is present.

However, the amygdala also seems to be involved with the formation of positive memories, like Pavlov’s dogs learning to associate the sound of a bell with food, so that they salivated merely at the sound of a bell after a while. Damage to the amygdala can impair the ability to form positive memories, just as it can affect the ability to form negative memories, apparently.

So it’s more than a threat detector or fear generator.

Here’s how we can look at it constructively: the amygdala evaluates things in the environment automatically, i.e. below conscious level, in order to determine their importance for the individual, positive or negative—and generates emotional responses to things it considers important.

How does it assess importances?

Take away this physical aspect, and think of it as part of the mind — like a lighthouse beam, continually projected onto our environment.

What is it projecting?

Ideals.

As it scans around us, 360 degrees in every direction through our senses, it is picking up, like radar, anything in the environment and evaluating it primitively against a pre-formed notion of what that thing it’s looking at should look like. Is what it ‘sees’ close to an ideal? In which case, no problem. Or is there something missing, something odd, something not quite right, out there? The more departures it detects from an ideal, the higher the fear response; the closer to a projected ideal, the lower the fear response.

It’s like one of those Spot the Difference pictures: the mechanism, whether physical or mental, continually holds up an ideal environment against the actual surroundings and ‘spots’ differences and similarities with what actually occupies the space around us, including our bodily space.

It’s scanning your body right now and detecting both what is good, normal, perfectly sound and ordinary about your bodily functions, as well as any departures from the ideal, any discomforts, pains, non-optimum sensations. And that ‘scanning’ extends to your immediate environment and beyond both physically and mentally and into past and future as well.

So the amygdala automatic scan might be instantly reporting ‘pain/left knee’ or ‘room too hot’ or ‘family member too aggressive’; or it might be reporting ‘yesterday’s conversation with boss/too timid’ or ‘tomorrow’s exams/unknowns’ or ‘future break-up with girlfriend imminent’. Scan scan scan all the time, like the electronic arm on a radar screen, but everywhere at once.

If it finds a departure is significant, it triggers the internal alarm in your head.

How does it know when a perceived threat in the environment is significant enough to press the red button?

You’ll find out next time.

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