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Overcoming the Amygdala Part 57

An Important Truth

Here’s a central truth, but one which may be difficult to grasp:

One’s parasympathetic nervous system including one’s amygdala will continue to operate unconsciously no matter what one does, because that’s what it is designed to do.

To talk of ‘overcoming the amygdala’ may in fact be misleading, ultimately, because while we are human, the amygdala will try to do its job, regardless of any conscious protests on our part. ‘Overcoming’ probably needs to be more clearly defined as ‘succeeding in dealing with (a problem or difficulty)’ rather than simply ‘defeat (an opponent)’. What we are in effect trying to do is establish a new relationship with a part of ourselves which has biologically wired access to uncomfortable and sometimes distressing aspects of our bodies, so that we might better control or at least comprehend what is happening when those aspects are activated beneath our consciousness.

The establishing of this relationship can (and perhaps already has for many readers) led to some astonishing revelations about ourselves, our patterns of thinking, the assumptions upon which we base our lives, and even into philosophical readjustments, rearrangements and recalibrations.

(As an aside, the word ‘calibre’, whence we get ‘recalibrate’, comes from French, from Italian calibro, and then perhaps from Arabic qālib ‘mould’, based on the Greek kalapous ‘shoemaker's last’. So recalibrating might be able to be reworded as ‘if the shoe fits, wear it — and make it more comfortable in the wearing’.)

On a conceptual level, we have examined how the amygdala looks outward to the surroundings of an individual (and those ‘surroundings’ can include fixed mental furniture as well as the physical geography and relationships around the person) and ‘pings’ every time it detects a departure. That’s because, we surmise, the mechanism isn’t just looking, it’s projecting: it is like a lighthouse or a movie projector, beaming out pictures of what it considers to be the ‘ideal scenario’ in any given set of circumstances. When the signal it receives back shows that something is missing that should be present, or present that should be missing (losses and/or threats in the environment) it automatically sets off an alarm signal through the parasympathetic nervous system, and we feel the effects with which many of us are very familiar: terror, tension, upset stomach, cold sweat, inability to think of anything but the detected departures, and so on.

While we are human, this is going to happen. But ‘human’ is a broad term. In fact, ‘human’ is a collective term: it embraces and includes all the species within the broader group of hominoids. ‘Human’ comes from Old French humain(e), from Latin humanus, from homo ‘man, human being’. But just as the term might be useful for science or for understanding the general principles of how our bodies work, it’s also a term which can obscure a fundamentally important truth, which is that we are all individuals. Humans, yes, but so unique and individual that the broad definition can miss as much as it can hit when it comes to understanding You, or Me, or any individual person whom we know.

Your individual amygdalic response to any given situation is going to be different in both degree and kind to mine.

Let’s take an extreme example to try to illustrate this point:

I and my friend Jack Robinson find ourselves in the middle of the African wilderness, confronted by a charging rhinoceros. I am already uncomfortable in the dry heat, and bothered by the flies and sense that my skin is being burned by the fierce sun before I even notice the rhino; Jack, on the other hand, has spent all his life studying rhinoceroses, has lived with them, obtained three doctorates in their behaviour and physiology, and is basically the world’s most competent rhino trainer.

Whereas, upon seeing the approaching creature, my amygdala activates every alarm available to it and throws me into a screaming panic, Jack responds much more calmly and is able to soothe the animal and save us both from being trampled or impaled — his amygdala doesn’t recognise much of a departure from an ideal scenario for him, whereas mine, accustomed to a more sedentary and temperate existence, goes into overdrive.

You can see milder examples of these differences all around you: you may find yourself uncomfortable in a coffee shop, surrounded by chatting people, whereas you might have friend whose entire life consists of attending one party after another. I went for a whole term while at university without leaving the university grounds for fear of entering any kind of shop; meanwhile many of my friends happily drove hither and thither, visiting each other, shopping centres, concerts and who knows what, in apparently perfect comfort.

We are all different. Sometimes very different.

Our amygdalas recognise different scenarios as threatening or alarm-worthy.

Denis Waterman, British TV star, who had been born and brought up in London, once bought a country cottage and hoped to spend quiet weekends there; after one night in the silence of the countryside he fled back to the city and never used the place again. For some people I know, the idea of an empty weekend in which they might not see anyone at all is filled with terror; for me, it’s a picture of paradise.

What does this mean, and how can it help us in our quest to establish a new relationship with our parasympathetic nervous systems?

We probably first have to look at it conceptually.

Outward Projection and Inward Reality

If the amygdala is looking/projecting outwardly, in every individual’s case differently, is it telling us anything about our inner selves?

Is what we are seeing outside a clue as to something going on inside?

What do the shadows we project onto the wall tell us about how we might be holding our hands?

As psychologist Carl Jung put it: ‘People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.’

If we can take the step of splitting off, for a moment, the biologically wired mechanism which I have just said is an inextricable part of our make-up as humans, and run a little thought experiment, if might prove revealing and helpful.

For example, a man who has tremendous anxieties about his health — for whom the slightest twinge or ache or discomfort has him searching on Google for the most drastic diagnosis — clearly has an active amygdala, ringing mental and physical alarms. He’s projecting, in other words, an ideal picture of his health outwardly, and detecting the slightest departures from it as a consequence — departures which trigger his parasympathetic nervous system to one degree or another.

But why is he so projecting?

What is happening inwardly that this man feels so obliged, or compelled, to continually present ‘perfect health’ as an ideal outwardly?

Now some interesting questions are thrown up: what does ‘perfect health’ mean to this individual? What is so important about having no aches or pains or physical departures in his body?

Naturally, we all would like perfect health, and the absence of any negative physical symptoms would probably be welcomed by everyone alive — but we’re looking at this man, this particular individual, in his specific circumstances. And it comes to light that in this man’s case, he is so anxious about his health for a number of interesting reasons:

i) he is very insecure about being able to provide for his family. He already feels in debt to those around him: any further decline in his ability to generate wherewithal would be, he considers, a complete disaster.

ii) he is worried about his legacy. He feels that he has much still to offer the world and that, if he were to be taken ill or suddenly die, this would all be lost.

iii) he has a great deal of attention on how much he wasted his time while he was healthy. He never realised the boon he had been granted in possessing good health for most of his life — for this to be taken away, and for the signals to be apparently telling him that further decline is on the cards, plunges him into a great pit of self-pity and self-blame.

iv) an impending loss of what health remains to him has an especial impact, he thinks, upon his relationship with his children: if he leaves them through death or through lack of ability to participate in their lives, he betrays their trust and expectations of him as their father.

These are intimate psychological reasons, note. What is also noteworthy is that each one can be addressed psychologically, without regard to any presenting health symptom or outward phenomena.

For example, the man could set up some kind of provision so that, if anything negative were to happen to him, at least some sort of financial compensation would be forthcoming; he could detail plans and delegate functions so that some at least of what he had to offer was able to be finalised and presented, or he could focus his attention on those projects instead of searching Google for health symptoms; he could use the time available to develop better, more intimate relations with his children so that, if he were to depart the scene, they would understand him more and not feel betrayed.

In other words, he could recalibrate his approach to the world around him. This is not to say that, if he set things up differently, he would not feel anxious about health issues at all — but chances are that a great deal of irrational anxiety would fade away. Why? Because the inward motivation for the outward projection would have been addressed.

The upshot of this is that the amygdala projects ideals onto an individual’s environment and is wired to activate alarms accordingly — but the individual is much more in control of what those ideals are than he or she might first think. The ideals provide a clue as to what is bothering the person beneath the surface of his or her conscious awareness. Though each individual is different, and therefore each ‘map’ of amygdalic projections will be different, the shadow-play of the amygdala’s activities can be traced back to its source — and that source lies very much within the individual’s control, though it might not appear so at first.

And it’s that lack of apparency of control — the individual’s only partly conscious internal concerns, usually about himself or herself — which prompt the amygdala’s activities in the first place. He’s projecting outwardly in order to compensate for an apparent inability to address the right things inwardly.

If the man used in the example above could have had his attention drawn to his issues of insecurity, legacy and family relationships earlier, it is likely that he might have seen his hypochondria in a different light, or perhaps even never have developed such health anxieties in the first place. By directing his attention onto things he could do about his inner concerns, he eases off on projecting his fears outwardly.

Have a look at this for yourself: what is your amygdala triggering about particularly? Health? Relationships? Finances or job-related worries? Establish those things fairly clearly first — then look inward. Are there internal reasons why health, relationships, finances and so forth are being projected?

What are your outward projections telling you about your inner world?

More soon.

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