Overcoming the Amygdala Part 2
We’ve seen that there is a function in the mind/brain, possibly associated with the amygdala in the brain, which acts as a constant ‘scanner’ of our thoughts, bodies and environments, perpetually comparing ideal situations with existing ones, day in, day out. It’s a primitive mechanism, designed to detect anything it considers to be a departure from perfection. If it finds something it considers a threat to the organism, it triggers the fear response with which we are all familiar: raised heart-rate, increased respiration, panicky emotion — and it triggers without reference to conscious thinking, because rational thought requires time, and emergencies don’t have time.
Those organic responses are supposed to prepare us, on a basic physical level, for either a fight or flight, and in times past, when physical dangers were far more prevalent in our environments, the whole thing worked well enough: from the smell of smoke to mysterious movements in the nearby bushes, to the sounds of approaching predators, the amygdala did its job at the organic level it was designed for: it prompted readiness for action.
Its continuous scanning also helped human beings to find foods that they could eat, suitable places to shelter and so on.
The problem arises when the amygdala finds departures which only resemble or seem like actual departures, but which are actually harmless. It senses unknowns surrounding a forthcoming school exam, for example, and triggers anxiety; it picks up a slight lack of material goods in the shops and activates panic buying; it interprets a look on someone’s face as threatening and causes a fear response. Bypassing the conscious mind as it does, we get the chemical wave of emotion and physical change without apparently being able to do anything about it.
This can cause a range of effects in individuals.
1. It can totally overwhelm us by sending wave after wave of fear responses until we are overcome by apathy, and awake each day convinced that it will take an impossible effort to defeat the threats in the environment, even when we can’t exactly specify what they are. This is depression.
2. It can overwhelm us almost completely, so that even when we manage to function, we spend most of our time deeply worried and fretting over hard-to-identify factors in the environment which for some reason our brains are telling us we need to feel fraught about. This is anxiety.
3. We can swing in and out of anxiety or depressive states as the signals from the amygdala strike us and then vanish, returning at random, as far as we can tell.
4. As things improve slightly, unless we address some root causes, we can still feel the sudden and unexplainable effects of an anxiety attack after long periods of feeling fine.
However, once we isolate what is happening and apply various remedies — about which more in a moment — we can actually put some distance between ourselves and the amygdala’s automatic responses. We can start to seriously rise up a scale towards mastery of ourselves.
To answer that, we have to look more closely at how the amygdala does what it does to us.
In scanning us and our environments, internal and external, there must be more going on than the simple comparisons already described in order detect departures. There must also be some kind of assessment of potential threat level. And, in order to be able to assess that level of a potential threat, there must also be an assessment of us.
What does that mean?
Well, imagine you were walking along in a primitive jungle and out from the bushes leapt a sabre-toothed tiger, as pictured in our last instalment. Always-functioning amygdala must do two things, instantly, before it triggers our fight/flight response:
i) it must recognise that a sabre-toothed tiger is a departure from an ideal scenario on the jungle walk, and
ii) it must do an immediate comparison between the tiger and ourselves.
If the tiger looks like a departure from perfection which is not merely uncomfortable but a menace to our well-being and perhaps even our life, the alarm is triggered — and rightly so.
But what if it were only a small furry kitten that harmlessly rolled into our path as we walked along in that jungle?
i) the amygdala would not perceive it as much of a departure from perfection, and
ii) a quick comparison between the kitten and ourselves reveals that there is no cause for alarm. We are instantly calculated to be greater than the kitten in any potential confrontation.
So we have a quasi-mathematical formula taking place which must look something like this in the case of the sabre-toothed tiger:
You < perceived departure = alarm triggered
But the same quasi-formula looks like this in the case of the kitten:
You > perceived departure = no need for alarm.
Do you see yet where this is leading?
This is a formula with which we can do something to improve our lives.
The Emphasis So Far
Given the above formula, the emphasis in helping people overcome depression or anxiety so far tends to be on the second part: i.e. dealing with the perceived threat.
People suffering from depression or anxiety often complain that they are not understood— the communications they often get from friends or relatives are to do with attempts to lessen the perceived threat in their environments. ‘There’s nothing to worry about’, ‘What exactly are you depressed about?’, ‘Really, if you think about it, you shouldn’t feel the way you do’, ‘You have much to be grateful for’ and so on are the kinds of things normally said to people in a low emotional state. These efforts are aimed — probably with the best intentions in the world — at trying to remove or reduce the danger in the environment, and thereby to help the person to feel better.
Even modern medical therapy has this focus: to suppress the perception of threat in the person’s internal or external surroundings, or to attempt to reduce the efficacy of the alarm signal itself. In other words, if only the sufferer could be made to realise that they are 'imagining things', all would be well; or, if they can’t, then let’s dull down the emotional fight/flight response chemically.
But the amygdala response is designed to be as real and effective as possible on that individual: it's designed to save that person’s life, to protect and even to enhance their existence. The alarms it raises are not easily put aside — they were never meant to be ignored or belittled. So the more people tell depression sufferers ‘Calm down, it will be OK, there’s nothing there’, the more the sufferer protests and the sharper the emotions can get.
So what’s the answer?
It’s all to do with the formula.
We need to address the other part.
The standard formula is
You < perceived departure = alarm triggered
This means that the amygdala instantly measures up the individual and the perceived threat, finds the person wanting, and so presses the red button. But what if, in measuring up the person, the amygdala came more and more to the conclusion that he or she was NOT wanting?
In other words, what if we could work towards a scenario in which the formula was more and more often coming out as
You > perceived departure = no need for alarm
not by reducing or attempting to remove the perceived threat or dulling the alarm signals, but by working on the You part of the equation?
The Power of You
This is where we return to the mindfulness/meditation with which we began — but before you scoff, this isn’t going to be a case of ‘contemplating one’s navel’ until the fear goes away. That would be just another attempt to reduce the apparent threat level or turn down the alarm buzzer.
No — this is something different.
It begins with the usual approach to meditation, involving relaxing the body and mind and achieving a ‘peaceful’ state, for sure — but that really is just the beginning.
Most meditative and mindfulness practices are ‘passive’, in the sense that they aim for a focus on the internal, with the end product of ‘stillness’, whether that is a mindful stillness or not. But Active Meditation uses other parts and functions in the human mind to take things a stage further in order to expand the individual’s consciousness. Then, when the amygdala makes its regular calculations, the formula more often than not comes out on the positive side for the person: ‘You’ is perceived to be generally greater than anything happening in the environment.
To understand how it does this, it’s going to be necessary to explain why it has to do it in the first place.
Why is the average human individual’s perception of himself or herself such that the amygdala’s calculation usually comes out negative?