Overcoming the Amygdala Part 19


The biggest unknown we face as mortals is Death.

Living a linear life as we do, each film-frame of our existence is laid out end-to-end to present to us the illusion of motion and action, as in a movie. Given that we can neither change the frames that have just gone by, nor see the ones that lie ahead, the whole ‘chain of events’ approach yields plenty of fuel for the amygdala.

The amygdala is that part of our mind/brain which constantly searches for departures from the ideal, and in a linear existence it has much to detect: not only is it perpetually scanning the future for risks, it also worries about how things that have just happened, that we cannot change, will affect us in some way. The job interview next week, the bungled conversation with a relative last weekend, the fact that the weather is turning nasty, the rumours about gangs in the district — all these things and a thousand more give the amygdala loads to ‘think’ about. It ‘thinks’ by rapidly assessing all these factors and quickly comparing them with an assessment of your current state, which usually ends up with the conclusion You < perceived departure = alarm triggered.

It’s the alarms which are the problem. Designed to help us by preparing us to face or run away from perceived crises, they can turn out to be quite crippling and become a crisis in themselves, which naturally leads to a spiral downwards toward panic and depression.

One approach to all this would be to ‘go into battle against the amygdala’ and to try to reduce its effectiveness or influence. This is the approach taken by modern medicine which provides drugs to dull or slow down the alarm system; it’s also a method used sometimes in meditation, teaching the mind to ignore the amygdala’s warnings and to simply ‘be happy’.

But it’s not workable to struggle against the amygdala — it’s trying to do the job it was designed for, and one could argue that the more anxious and depressed it makes us, the better it is doing that job. If you designed an alarm system to pick up the slightest disturbance in an area around you and you found it going off every few seconds because of a tiny variation in light in part of that area, you might congratulate yourself for having developed a very sensitive and effective machine. Forcing it to ignore certain departures or training yourself to ignore its signals would be counter-productive: what you really need to do is understand what it is warning you of, and then comprehend the context in which it works.

Putting it simply, it’s a linear-life defence system.

The amygdala comes as a package with living life in a movie-like straight line. As we move (or seem to move) from ‘past’ to ‘future’, it's the gadget spotting risks, threats and possible disasters and sending out alarms in order to try to maintain an individual’s relative integrity. The result of its constant efforts is that you make it to the ‘end of the line’ relatively intact: you’ve dodged the bullets, fled the attackers, fought off the intruders, protected the ones you love, and staggered through, frame by frame, until the linear life terminates. Choose to live a linear life and you get an amygdala thrown in at no extra charge. It’s great at what it does— ask any animal.

There’s more to human life, though, isn’t there?

Art, beauty, spirituality, compassion, warmth, shared realities and so forth — these are all qualities and characteristics which don’t necessarily squeeze into a simple linear pattern. They tend to become apparent only when we lay out the frames of our internal movies next to each other (rather than in a line) and see connections which are not necessarily related in a linear way: aesthetic associations, emotional links, similarities and differences which evoke entirely new and non-linear correspondences, these all arise when we are able to step off the moving picture frame line of existence and contemplate a latitudinal life.

All of us have been children. Children tend to think latitudinally and to associate one thing with another using what we call the ‘imagination’. In fact, the imagination might be termed the ‘latitudinal mind’. It doesn’t stand so much in opposition to the amygdalic system as perpendicular to it. Whereas the amygdala seeks to maintain our integrity in a linear existence, the imagination seems to enhance our actuality latitudinally. When we are at play, unconcerned with danger or pressure and free to make imaginative associations without fear of judgement or interference, we seem to grow in strength and joy and power the more connections and associations we make ‘sideways’, out of the ‘one-thing-happens-after-another’ reality and into an alternate way of reading things.

A useful comparative might be with reading a story. We read linearly, one word after another, each word and paragraph accumulating meaning, and we observe or share a character’s movement through a sequence of events called a ‘plot’. Step by step, this plot culminates in some kind of end-state for that character and those around him. But as we progress linearly, and as that meaning accumulates, our imaginations are making connections emotionally, unconsciously, aesthetically, resulting in a different kind of conclusion from the linear one. A character might survive a series of battles and accomplish a quest; but the experience of sharing that may also have produced in us a multi-dimensional resonance. Yes, we had to go through the tale one page at a time to grasp both — but both effects are quite different in nature from each other. In one, we see the resolution of a sequence of departures from the ideal, as the character either faces them or runs from them, ending up in the condition he or she ends up in in the final chapter, whatever that may be; in the other, we see the tapestry of ramifications and connections which the author has conjured for us using more than character and plot: things like setting, and language, and image and metaphor and foreshadowing and structure and so forth, things which appeal to the latitudinal mind as it reads.

Human life is like that. On the one hand, it’s a struggle for survival against various threats in the environment, internal and external, real or imagined; on the other, it’s a cultivation, a growth of connections, a development of affinities, a recognition of similarities and differences, measured aesthetically, spiritually, emotionally, imaginatively. When we come to the ‘end of the line’, we will have survived in one shape or another thanks largely to the never-ceasing efforts of the amygdala — but we will have grown in other ways to the extent to which we have cultivated our latitudinal perceptions of life.

Linear and latitudinal approaches are fundamental parts of the Personality Ecosystem. Like other ecosystems, it doesn’t bear too much fruit to interpret them in terms of a battle between elements, a contest in which only the fittest survive. It yields more practical and aesthetic wisdom to analyse an ecosystem in terms of the shifting alignments of inter-related factors, sometimes emphasising one set, sometimes another.

Active Meditation is the study of the ecosystem of interrelated factors which make up Us.

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