The Amygdala’s Reasoning Ability
The thing about the way the amygdala thinks is that it is not entirely irrational, as might be supposed.
We’ve learned from various dubious sources that the amygdala is an ‘unconscious’ mechanism which simply reacts upon a stimulus, like a dead frog’s leg twitches when electric current is applied. But so far we have explored the possibility that this isn’t entirely true: there is a reasoning process which occurs, albeit primitive, and it goes like this:
1. The amygdala scans the physical and mental environment continually, bleep bleep bleep, like a sonar device in a submarine.
2. It isn’t just ‘scanning’ though — it’s projecting, beaming out ideal scenario after ideal scenario based on the environment, like a lighthouse.
3. Based on what it ‘sees’, it detects departures from those ideal scenarios: odd noises, missing sequences, less-than-smiley faces, and so on — tons and tons of potential minor or major departures, depending on what’s actually going on in the surroundings of the individual.
4. Then it makes a rapid calculation: it assesses You, the individual, and the detected departures and matches them up, all in a flash.
5. You < perceived departure means that it bypasses your conscious thinking and activates ‘fight/flight’ mechanisms in your physiology, even if you don’t consciously want it to.
6. You > perceived departure means that you are left in peace.
That’s quite a lot to achieve in a split-second. And it does this all the time while you’re awake, every second — arguably, it continues to function when you sleep, as witnessed by some of your dreams, no doubt.
After a while, like Gollum’s use of the One Ring, this wears you down — you become ‘thin’ and weak inside, which worsens the You/perceived departure calculation each time it’s made, dooming you forever to increased anxiety — unless you grow in understanding and competence as far as the amygdala’s processes are concerned.
To get more understanding, we have go even deeper into how the amygdala ‘thinks’.
We can do this using a very simple (and unalarming) example. Take a look at this sequence of numbers:
1, 2, 4, 5.
Your analytical mind scans that sequence just like the amygdala scans your environment. It’s pretty easy to spot that the number 3 is missing from the line; the ‘hole’ thus created is filled as soon as a three is inserted:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
The amygdala scans much more complex scenarios, all the time. It detects similar ‘missing’ elements: missing health, missing love, missing friendly responses, missing certainty. It spots unknowns, gaps, holes, lost items, threats, risks. It can only spot them by projecting an ideal scenario in which they are present — otherwise they would not be highlighted, just as furniture in a darkened room is not visible until a light is switched on. If the amygdala wasn’t throwing out ideal scenarios all the time, it wouldn’t be able to ‘see’ departures from them.
But where it gets really interesting is how its simple reasoning proceeds from there.
Just like in the number sequence above, the amygdala is happy when whatever it is that is missing can be shown to have reappeared.
Thus, in our well-used sabre-toothed tiger scenario, the beast leaps from the jungle to attack you and the amygdala triggers your ‘fight/flight’ physiology — and won’t stop until it is convinced that a) you have sufficient weapons and resources to defeat the tiger or b) the tiger runs away.
As soon as you have comprehensively dealt with the threat, in other words — or even thoroughly demonstrated that you have the matter well in hand in a very practical way — the amygdala’s alarm switches off. It has served its purpose; the environmental departure has vanished; the ideal scene, or something acceptably similar, has been restored.
So the amygdala’s primitive reasoning needs simple, solid evidence before it deactivates the alarms.
It’s like having a very simplistic bodyguard who warns you about every possible danger in your environment and won’t shut up about it until you physically and visibly prove that each menace is handled.
Sabre-toothed tigers were clear and present dangers at one point — in our more ‘civilised’ society, we face a whole different order of dangers. For example, let’s say you have a job interview tomorrow. Your amygdala is going alarm-crazy because this is a departure from an ideal scenario in which you would already be happily employed somewhere and wouldn’t have to endure an interrogation by strangers to prove your worth. What is it that the amygdala particularly goes wild about here? It’s the unknowns: what questions will they ask you? Will you embarrass yourself somehow? Ultimately, will the outcome be good and will you get the job? So many things not known drive the amygdala nuts, because unknowns = danger = alarms triggered.
The only way (it seems) that these particular alarms could be silenced would be if you were somehow able to see into the future and obtain actual hard data to fill in all the blanks. Only then would the mechanism accept that there was no need for alarm — and even then, it would need evidence to show that the future you had peered into was the actual future, not some kind of trick.
Health fears, anxiety about a marriage, worries over money, concerns about loved ones, upsets about the state of the world — all of these are based on unknowns, which are departures from ideal set-ups and therefore set off physiological alarms.
How can we deal with this?
Here’s the thing (and it’s of central importance, so read this carefully):
The amygdala demands hard facts to fill in the unknowns — but the physiological alarms can be turned off in the absence of those hard facts.
Just because the amygdala operates on simplistic reasoning doesn’t mean we have to.
Just because it isn’t convinced that tomorrow’s job interview is settled doesn’t mean that you can’t bypass it and switch off the anxiety.
Just because you have alarms rigged by the mechanism, ringing loud in your mind, doesn’t mean that you have to listen to them.
Riding a Bike
If you have ever been part of a fire drill — or perhaps been involved in a real fire — you may recall that the fire alarms are often very loud. Overpoweringly so, you may have noted — they ring far louder than they would need to to simply be heard. Obviously, the goal of a fire alarm is to make sure everyone in the building knows that they need to evacuate. Fire authorities require fire alarm horns and sirens to sound louder than ambient noises, often 15 decibels above the average noise level or 5 decibels above the maximum ambient sound, whichever is greater. Due to factors like closed doors and sound-absorbent materials, the decibel level must be high at the source to ensure the sound travels to every corner of the building.
Your amygdala mechanism is similarly rigged to be so ‘loud’ that you can’t ignore it. It triggers automatically, out of your conscious control, and is then so overwhelming and you are compelled to react. It has to be strong enough to end your attention even if what you were involved in was especially engaging.
But are you really compelled to obey?
After you’ve been practising Active Meditation for a while, it will probably be possible for you to feel the full force of an amygdala alarm trigger, experience the full gamut of physiological sensations, but remain in control of yourself.
Think of the process like learning to ride a bicycle or training yourself how to surf: for a while, you lose balance easily and fall off or get swept away by a big wave. But, with practice, you find that magical balance and discover that you can move forward, remaining on the bike or surfboard whatever the winds or waves throw at you.
Active Meditation is the set of techniques designed to help you to move forward despite the overly loud fire alarms in your head.