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Overcoming the Amygdala Part 18


Not only is it hard to not think logically — our amygdalic minds warn us strongly that it’s dangerous.

How would it be if we started thinking out of sequence? Or imagining that straightforward events did not follow one from another? Or that simple actions might produce entirely unpredictable consequences? Of course the amygdala is a basic linear-thinking machine — it could not cope with non-linear thinking. Anything that does not follow a simple cause-and-effect pattern falls outside its remit entirely — it couldn’t function. It would be liking asking a two-dimensional creature to describe something in three dimensions: it just wouldn’t be able to do it.

But one of the most fundamental aspects of being human — perhaps even the most fundamental — is the ability to imagine. And that means, at least in part, the ability to go outside a cause-and-effect formula completely.

When we imagine something — whether in a daydream or as we compose a piece of fiction, or music, or anything artistic — we are not operating in a strict linear mode: we are thinking ‘outside the box’. Perhaps it is this capacity to think latitudinally which separates us from the animals. Most beasts have to think one moment after another, accepting what comes along in a line that leads from past to future: they graze the next mouthful of grass, or hunt the next mouse, or seek out the nearest waterhole in a highly ‘logical’ fashion, in a perpetual quest to survive linearly.

But human beings can envision things ‘sideways’: we can picture not merely grazing grass, but growing our own seed varieties and harvesting them; we don’t just hunt the next mouse, we build traps to catch mice for us; we don’t have to seek out the next available waterhole, we construct dams and reservoirs and direct the water where we want it to go. At first, many of these human activities seem to be drawn from logic, until you realise that without the capacity to imagine, none of them would have been devised.

The amygdala is a carry-over from a part of us that very much needed to think logically. In a dangerous environment, any apparent departure from an ideal logical scenario could be interpreted as a threat: tiger footprints in the sand; a door that should be locked left swinging open; the scent of smoke in the air, and so on. Thousands of departures in an individual’s surroundings could mean disaster about to strike — hence the need to trigger the ‘fight/fight’ physical and mental machinery which might help us to survive whatever lurks around the corner of the linear future.

From health indicators to nerves about a public speaking engagement to worries about loved ones from whom we haven’t heard — all these things and many more are departures from a logically constructed ideal environment, and so all are liable to activate the ‘danger’ response.

How would it be if we could ‘live latitudinally’?


Living Latitudinally


Let’s make clear from the start that this is almost impossible to do for any length of time while living in the ordinary world, but it’s worth trying to imagine (there’s the imagination again) what it might be like.

Firstly, living latitudinally would immediately disconnect the amygdala. It is a machine designed to detect linear risks — moving off the line altogether would unplug it as directly as if it was an electronic alarm and one took the batteries out. The individual would no longer be concerned about linear risks: one event in Time would not necessarily be linked to another in a causative way — a scent of smoke would not inevitably mean that there was a fire.

So how would a latitudinal mind react to the scent of smoke?

Well, ‘react’ is clearly the wrong word. Smoke in the air might evoke a completely different set of associations: campfires from youth, the symbolic burning of an old text book, the season of autumnal bonfires, connections with an elderly relative who used to regularly have backyard fires, cigarette smoke, a time of celebration or grief… and so on. Latitudinal connections spread outwards from an image or thing like ripples in a pond.

A tiger’s footprint in the sand? That might conjure pictures of exotic beasts deep in the jungle, or other notable footprints, or the idea of making an impression in a surface with something else, or handprints in the snow, or a thousand other things.

An open door swinging? That might call up memories of houses from long ago, or mystic portals, or welcoming hosts, or abandoned dwellings, or any number of other things.

You can see why the amygdala would go crazy: to wander off the beaten track along strings of associated images which have nothing to do with the clear and present danger conveyed by all these departures would place the individual in distinct danger, it would say. All the alarm bells in the world would not convey how panicked the amygdala would get if this kind of ‘irresponsible daydreaming’ were to continue.

And yet this is what children do, before they ‘learn better’ — their minds wander, they make uncanny and dreamlike associations, they play.

Children tend to think latitudinally.

How do they learn otherwise? Through pain. They learn the laws of Cause and Effect the hard way, by bumping into things, or hurting themselves with things, or not paying due attention to hazardous things in the linear universe. Their parents — older and wiser, in amygdalic terms — constantly teach the children to recognise and to beware the departures in the environment. And so human beings grow to respect and to try and cope with the linear environment in which they find themselves.

Indeed, it’s possible to argue that the more pain an individual suffers in life, physically and emotionally, the more stuck they get on linear thinking. They don’t necessarily get more logical, but they do tend to get more narrow-minded. On the other hand, those fortunate enough to grow up with less pain in their lives tend to retain some of that latitudinal thinking that they enjoyed when young — they find more pleasant associations between things, and are not always on the lookout for peril.

Through Active Meditation, it’s hoped that an individual can grow to think and live more latitudinally again. While living in a linear world, it’s probably not possible nor indeed advisable to completely disconnect the amygdala — but it certainly is possible, and advisable, to train the mind to think outside its narrow box a little more.

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