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Overcoming the Amygdala Part 20

Let’s imagine that you’re a computer programmer and you’ve invented a programme, the purpose of which is to keep itself going for as long as possible.

One of the first things this programme might need to do to fulfil its purpose is probably to either drown out all the other programmes running alongside it, or parasite from them so as to maintain its own momentum. It would also be constantly scanning the environment, looking for dangers to its own existence and jumping in to fill these ‘holes’ quickly or to alert its core as to the relative menaces being faced so that they could be dealt with or avoided fast.

To this programme, the abstract idea of being ‘switched off’, or running out of ‘code’, or in some other way ceasing to operate would be a complete anathema — it would run totally counter to its design and intention. It may even develop all kinds of images or concepts about the idea of ‘termination’ with the aim of avoiding that likelihood at all costs.

If it helps, you can imagine this as a story instead of a programme — a story which has been given the instruction ‘Do Not End’ or ‘keep going as long as you can’. Inside that story, there might be a constant struggle in one way or another against the idea of ‘termination’; new chapters, new ideas, new ways of lengthening the plot, would always be being sought to lengthen the tale, and there might also be all kinds of metaphoric battles against ‘endings’ within the story.

After a while, the story might get a little repetitive or worn out as the plot-generators started to run out of steam — but always there would be ongoing efforts to perpetuate momentum and to keep attention focused internally, to resolve gaps, to avoid or prevent any choices that might lead to any kind of ‘final conclusion’, and to generate as much interest and meaning with what it was doing to that there was no inclination to ‘wrap things up’. There might even be an impulse within either the programme or the story to create ‘sub-programmes’ or ‘sequels’ so that, if anything happened to the master copy, there was some sense in which the programme/story went on into the future.

Astute readers may have surmised that this analogy, whether in its programme or story version, is an illustration of what is happening with Life as an organic activity. In particular, they may have noted the resemblance between what is being described here and the functions and actions of the amygdala, that part of the human being specifically designed to warn us of danger and to try to keep us alive individually. It’s an analogy which may yield some insights into how we should behave in relation to this part of our Personality Ecosystem.


We need another name for Death — it’s too emotive as it stands. To continue the programming image, ‘death’ in computer terms might be called ‘End of Programme’; in story terms, we simply use the words ‘The End’. But what is actually ‘ending’?

In both metaphors, what is coming to an end is a linear reality of some kind.

In a programme, it’s the step-by-step sequence of actions which terminates; in a story, it’s the chapter-by-chapter sequence. Both of these are linear — they depend upon one thing following another thing in a line. Any programme or story manically interested in keeping its ‘line’ going would be keen to absorb things into itself which served that purpose, and to reject or avoid those things which didn’t. And this is exactly what human life — or animal life, or organic Life as a whole — seems to do: it takes on board anything that can be used to forward itself in a line, and it rejects or avoids anything which threatens to terminate that line or dissolve it into some other form of ‘non-linear’ existence.

This is what the amygdalic functions of a single life are attempting, then: to perpetuate a line — momentum, focus, meaning, all must be aimed at continuing something. While we remain in motion along the line, everything is about that line; if we pause for a moment to go ‘off piste’, the line wanders a little for a time, as when we sleep or daydream or meditate or contemplate things outside ourselves, but the line soon re-asserts its apparent dominance, doesn’t it? We are awakened, or ‘snapped out of it’ or compelled in some way to return to our duty of forwarding the line.

Arguably the function of sex is ‘hard-wired’ into our biology so that it too, like the alarm-triggering mechanisms of the amygdala, bypasses human reason and analysis at times and engages in the job of generating ‘sequels’ by creating biological offspring even in highly inappropriate and sometimes dismaying circumstances — and so we have the drama of relationships, the literature and music of ‘love’ gone awry and all the rest of it.

Linear and Non-linear

How can this insight into the functions of linear existence and the amygdala’s purpose help us?

Well, clearly understanding the simplicities involved in creating and maintaining a straightforward linear reality can open our eyes a little to what is happening in our own lives. We can perhaps begin to see how obsessive — and hugely successful — the amygdala is in achieving its objectives: it overrides comfort and rationality, it charges through ordered plans, it disrupts civilisations, all in the name of forwarding the line of the individual concerned.

But once we isolate out from our general human experience that that is what is happening — that we are being ‘rolled forward’ by this mechanism, no matter what — then we can also see, highlighted as it were by this isolation, what is non-amygdalic in our lives. We can begin to perceive, perhaps vaguely at first, what is non-linear; we can begin to tease out of our involvement with Life some of the things which stand in a perpendicular relationship to it. Beauty, for example; or altruistic love, or art or music or spiritual experiences — yes, these things can be ‘roped in’ to serve a linear purpose, but looked at objectively, they stand apart from the lines of individual existences. Beauty and intellectual affinity and those things that occur to and within the soul do not ultimately serve the forwarding of an individual ‘line’: largely, they add quality and depth to that forwarding, rather than simple continuance.

The original description of our computer programme might yield further insight too. In picturing something designed to drown out all the other things running alongside it, or parasite from them so as to maintain its own momentum, something that constantly scans its environment, looking for dangers to its own existence and jumping in to fill the ‘holes’ quickly, we have something resembling a description of the ego.

The Ego

Popularly known as the ‘self’, the ego according to Freud is 'the component of personality that is responsible for dealing with reality'. Freud compared the id — the source of all psychic energy, in Freudian terms the primary component of personality, present from birth, entirely unconscious and composed of instinctive and primitive behaviours — to a horse. The ego in his analogy is the horse's rider. The horse provides the power and motion; the rider provides direction and guidance. Without its rider, the horse may simply wander wherever it wished and do whatever it pleased, so the rider gives the horse directions and commands to get it to go where the rider wants it to go.

It’s an enticing analogy, but one which doesn’t quite fit our pattern as revealed by the Personality Ecosystem. In our image, the ‘id’ might be the whole ecosystem — the ‘ego’ is that part of the system designed to interact with the physical universe, given the task, if you like, of keeping the whole thing going in a linear framework.

This version of the ego includes the amygdalic alarm system: having a constant scanner which assesses and measures threats in the individual’s surroundings and then triggers fight/flight responses could be seen as a key development in enabling individual animal life to survive through various environmental hazards.

That’s what it does — and it does it pretty well. But that’s all it does.

And the big problem with it, as we have seen, is that it gets out of control and comes to dominate the ecosystem as a whole. We can make progress with it, though, as long as we learn to compartmentalise the bigger picture.

We have linear zones — the Panic Zone, the Anxiety Zone, and some of the Rhythmic Zone — which are dominated by the ego or amygdalic mechanism. In these zones, the mechanism is hard at work doing what Freud said that ego does: ‘dealing with reality’.

But we have non-linear zones. deeper in the ecosystem — the Calmer Zone, the Manifesting Zone, the Play Zone and the Zen Zone — which are just as much part of our individuality as the outer ones, and each has its own purpose and function, not directly related to what the ego demands we call ‘reality’ at all.

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