Overcoming the Amygdala Part 3
We’ve isolated a tentative formula by which the amygdala makes a calculation as to whether to alert you to danger or not:
You < perceived departure = alarm triggered
If this automatic mechanism senses that there is some kind of departure from the ideal in your internal or external environments — which could include anything from an apparent health problem to an approaching high speed vehicle to an announced economic recession and so forth — it quickly measures you up to see if you are up for the challenge. It will only press the alarm button if it seems that the appropriate response to this particular threat is ‘fight or flight’; if it assesses that you are quite capable of dealing with whatever it is, no alarm will be sounded.
Thus most of the time it probably leaves you alone — though it might not feel like it during the average day. But if you look around rationally, there is probably plenty in your environment which poses no threat to you at all: the chair you’re sitting in, the tea you’re drinking, a nearby window, a song on the radio — all of these things may be being unconsciously scanned, but judged unworthy of alarm by your amygdalic mechanism.
However, should there be an unexpected knock on the door in the next minute, many of you will be triggered by your amygdalae: ‘Who is it? What do they want? Are they going to take up precious time and energy? Are they a threat?’ Depending on your past experience and outlook, a knock on the door will be anything from a minor inconvenience to a major threat to your peace of mind.
And that’s the point:
Your amygdala is unique to you, and measures up things according to the data it scans about you as well as everything around you.
Unfortunately, this can and often does work to your disadvantage, because the more triggered you might have been in the past probably leaves you weaker and more fearful than you used to be. So the amygdala’s rapid calculation will tend to turn out as You < perceived departure = alarm triggered, triggering you yet again, in what amounts to a downward spiral, possibly leading all the way to depression, the pit from which almost everything around you appears to be trigger-worthy.
But why are some people’s ‘trigger histories’ so rich in incident?
What exactly predisposes a human being to being triggered?
Human beings are born into a world full of real and apparent menace. Their bodies are frail and subject to a vast range of very real pains and ailments; their immediate lives are affected by changes often beyond their control; and at the end of their struggles, they know that they are mortal and must die.
No wonder then, that the amygdala mechanism often concludes that an individual is less than a perceived threat in the environment and must be triggered to fight or run away.
In times of yore, when survival depended upon instant animalistic responses to harsh physical menaces, the amygdala was really in its element and probably saved individuals from disaster again and again. But, as things grew more sophisticated and people were removed from the front-line action, as it were, the amygdala’s constant scanning of everyone’s environment must have gradually perceived that the threats were less clear.
This has resulted in many, if not most of the trigger-moments being based on apparent threats, potential departures and unclear risks. Instead of protecting its host from obviously savage beasts or clear attacks from neighbouring tribes or sickness, the mechanism now goes off in the presence of shadowy half-threats, puzzling apparencies and ill-perceived complexities. Many people get a similar fear response to the idea of leaving their houses that their ancestors would only have been prompted to have in the face of an approaching forest fire; some people are mortally afraid of meeting others as though those others were hungry wild beasts; while some are constantly anxious about conversations that had in the schoolyard two days ago as though their lives depended upon what they should have said or not said.
The amygdala doesn’t exactly judge us — it is an unreasoning automaticity, after all — but it measures up what it thinks is our raw capacity to deal with perceived threats in our surroundings and finds us wanting, most of the time. And the more it finds us wanting, the more data it has when the next menace comes along that we were found wanting last time.
We’re predisposed to being found wanting, in other words.
The Role of Culture
But there’s more: modern culture, based on an introverted and ironic take on the universe, tends to teach us throughout our childhood and beyond that human beings generally are victims of fate and helpless before cosmic forces beyond their control. That’s no exaggeration: literature, film, the arts, even music and science, have changed over the last century and a half so that whereas once they were wellsprings of enlightenment or refreshment for human souls, now they are, for the most part, vehicles for channeling failure and victimhood.
It wasn’t always this way. Nor is human culture entirely devoid of hope or uplifting content. But any casual observer can see for themselves with just a glance that modern culture is for the most part full of negativity, divisiveness and hopelessness. This creeps into education until it dominates all channels of learning; even science, supposedly aloof from subjectivity, leans towards an entropic and empty universe partly because that’s where the mathematics takes them and partly because that’s where they take the mathematics.
So yes, we are found wanting in the face of just about any threat, real or imagined, large or small, until the broad tone of society inclines towards depression overall — social and cultural as well as economic.
Changing the Code
Just as software code can be rewritten, though, so can all this be changed to some degree. The good news is that, even if the change is attempted but doesn’t quite succeed, the mere effort of the attempt can bring some relief and hope.
What you’re trying to do is change the dynamics of the formula You < perceived departure = alarm triggered so that it approaches something like You > perceived departure = no need for alarm.
The amygdala’s measurement of You is usually going to be a decreasing quantity as you get older and with each activation of the alarm, so it looks initially as though you can’t ever win against it — lighter and lighter apparent threats are still going to trigger the alarm as you grow weaker. But there are practical steps you can take to upgrade and strengthen the You part of the equation, and they broadly fit into these categories:
1. Removing sources of potential or actual threat from your physical environment (or, conversely, removing yourself from their environment). This covers things like dangerous physical regions, aggressive family situations, untenable job positions and so on. It’s not always possible to completely distance yourself from them, but where possible, you should try to do so. The presence of actual or potential menace in your surroundings is obviously going to trigger the amygdala and weaken you over time.
2. Addressing any possible physical factor in yourself which triggers the amygdala. This includes fixing any existing health condition, or moving towards a more optimum state with it if you can.
3. Calming the amygdala down through standard meditation, which ameliorates the trigger mechanism to some degree.
4. Boosting or correcting the perceived condition of You, the individual, in terms of your ability and strength in any given situation. This is where Active Meditation comes in: you’re not just seeking to pour oil on the troubled waters perceived by the amygdala, but to change its calculation so that the ‘You’ bit outweighs the ‘perceived threat’ bit. This isn’t just a ‘pep talk’ for the soul — though pep talks work precisely because they make a person feel stronger in a challenging situation. The problem with the usual pep talk is that its effects are temporary — unless deeper factors are addressed, the boost to a person’s confidence will soon fade away.
Active Meditation attempts to change your own perception of You, and thereby the amygdala’s measurement of You when it comes to facing the world.
We’ll look at each aspect of the above categories over this series.