Overcoming the Amygdala Part 46
Human beings used to be primarily foragers and hunters. They roamed the wilderness seeking sustenance from plants and animals, and had to keep moving into potentially dangerous, untamed territories to keep up with those food sources.
The amygdala evolved to help them with that — its continual projecting of safe and survival scenarios and consequent highlighting of unsafe and dangerous departures from those scenarios, combined with its hard-wire bypassing of slower, rational thought, meant that early humanity had an effective device for making it through each day.
But about 12,000 years ago, something fundamental changed for many human beings: the technology of growing food was developed, along with the skills of domesticating animals. Agriculture was invented; livestock came into being. This was perhaps the most profound change in the whole history of the species, because it meant that there was for the first time the possibility of no scarcity: if plants could be grown rather than having to be foraged for, it was conceivable that more plants might be grown than were immediately needed; and if animals could be herded and kept captive, less time needed to be spent hunting for them, and less danger needed to be experienced in the process.
It could be argued that at this time, humanity as a group began to emerge from the Panic and Anxiety Zones of constant hunger, constant searching for food, constant menace from their environment, into a Rhythmic Zone where survival became linked to seasonal weather patterns and natural growth, sometimes favourable, sometimes not. Human attention was periodically freed up to create things beyond immediate needs — this was the dawn of culture and civilisation. Lasting settlements were feasible for the first time; property could be owned and secured; trade became possible.
The rest, in a literal sense, is history.
And with the far more recent changes of two hundred years ago, the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, it’s possible to argue that the species was potentially able to shift into the next zone, the Calmer Zone, freed from even the rudimentary chains of the seasons — society moved into an urban phase, and significant sections of the population slowly became even further removed from subsistence survival and able to ‘unmoor’ from the demands of the harsh physical universe to an even greater degree.
That’s pretty much where we seem to be today, at least in large sections of the globe: we are several steps away from having to urgently seek for our next meal. Far from having to go out hunting every day, we can usually simply click a website and have whatever we need delivered to us forthwith. Our current general condition is almost the direct opposite of the primitive hunter-gatherer scenario: we bring what we need to us at a fairly leisurely pace mostly, rather than having to continually risk our lives seeking it urgently.
The Calmer Zone is a fragile one. All it takes is a natural disaster, a series of awful economic events, or, as we have seen, a worldwide pandemic, to bring that comfortable condition to the brink of collapse. But its ‘normal operating routine’ is distanced from raw survival.
Unfortunately, biological evolution is a much slower process than human social development. Most of us have moved on into this new realm of settled routines and security — but our amygdalas are still wired to trigger alarms which bypass conscious thought at the slightest sign of any threat. In fact, as our lives grow more materially comfortable and easy, the amygdala works overtime to fulfil its purpose of saving us from disaster, and begins to explore every nook and cranny of our existence to find departures. Hence we get OCD, health anxieties, phobias, neuroses and all the other symptoms of highly strung behaviour overriding our rational observations and conclusions and jeopardising our serenity all day long.
It could be supposed that over time — say, several hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of years — the human brain might evolve. Those who were more in tune with actuality, with the new Calmer Zone, might move on to create new, calmer generations, while the anxious and panicky out-of-tune group gradually faded from the scene; the amygdala might physically shrink and lose its potency to direct behaviour. But we can’t wait that long! And right now, with human history showing an alarming tendency to crash periodically back into Anxiety and even Panic at times, it’s hard to believe that any evolutionary process is occurring.
So how do we jump ahead in evolutionary terms? Is it possible to ‘defuse’ the ancient mechanism of the amygdala so that we can enjoy a calmer life?
We’ve seen an array of techniques, breakthroughs, approaches and lifestyle changes so far which can help us overcome the amygdala to some degree — but it looks as though we are stuck with it as a physical part of our biological selves, at least for the time being.
Luckily, evolution also provided us with a way of calming down. In fact. there’s a whole part of the nervous system which seems explicitly designed (or which has evolved, depending on how you look at it) to counter the worst excesses of the amygdala. To understand what it is, and how to activate it, we need a quick lesson in biology.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system controls specific body processes like the circulation of blood, digestion, breathing, urination, heartbeat, and so on. It’s named so because it works autonomously, i.e. without our conscious effort.
The primary function of the autonomic nervous system is homeostasis. That’s ‘the tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes’. In other words, having us feel ‘normal’ or 'balanced' is its product. Apart from maintaining the body’s internal environment, the autonomic nervous system is also involved in controlling and maintaining the following life processes:
Where this gets particularly interesting for us is that there are two types of autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic system is located near the thoracic and lumbar regions in the spinal cord. Its primary function is to stimulate the body’s fight or flight response during any potential danger — it includes the amygdala. It regulates the heart rate, rate of respiration, pupillary response and more. It has shorter neural pathways, hence a faster response time.
The parasympathetic system is located in between the spinal cord and the medulla. It primarily stimulates the body’s ‘rest and digest’ and ‘feed and breed’ response. It inhibits the body from overworking and restores it to a calm and composed state. With its comparatively longer neural pathways, it has a slower response time.
The parasympathetic nervous system is composed of cranial and spinal nerves, while the sympathetic nervous system comprises cell bodies that lie within the grey column of the spinal cord.
So it sounds like we need to know more about activating the parasympathetic side of things.
That’s what we’ll talk about next time.