Overcoming the Amygdala Part 59
We’ve been looking at how our amygdala and the parasympathetic nervous system project outward onto our environment like radar, and how the ‘pings’ they get back indicate the presence of risks, threats or perceived menaces in that environment, which we can collectively term ‘departures’, meaning that these things are gaps or holes or unwanted presences against a backdrop of an ideal scenario.
Those ‘pings’ then automatically activate mental and physical alarms, which add up to anxiety or panic. In the long term, these alarms become the norm, and we end up depressed — where ‘depression’ is defined as the apparently complete absence of an ideal scenario altogether.
But we’ve reached a critical threshold here, because to progress further into the mysteries of the amygdala we have to grasp that all outward projection begins from an inner source. Some examples were given last time of how inner needs can translate into outer anxieties and how what we project onto our environments can be quite revealing about the sorts of things we are really worried about within ourselves. But this is not easy to think with. One of the hardest concepts to take on board in this investigation is this:
What the amygdala projects onto the outer world is determined by the inner self.
To understand more about this, we have to take a look at projection in greater depth.
It might help to start off by picturing ourselves in a slightly different way than we usually do.
It’s common when discussing the mental make-up of human beings to describe them in terms of possessing unconscious and conscious ‘halves’ — the conscious part is the bit that’s reading this and making sense of the words, looking around at the room and so on; the unconscious is the ‘unknown’ bit: we’re not actually sure what it’s doing — that’s why it’s ‘unconscious’ — but we perhaps get brief glimpses in dreams or through emotions, symbols etc. Psychology, psycho-analysis and popular notions of the mind are all largely based on this division of our minds into these two broad components.
But what if we were to rename them slightly? And in so doing, come to a slightly better understanding?
Let’s experiment and see.
The conscious part is what we could call the outward-facing part: it observes, calculates, measures and comes to what we call ‘rational’ conclusions about our physical and mental surroundings. Meanwhile the unconscious part could be termed the inward-facing component — and the reason that we can’t say much about what it does is because of that fact: it faces inwards, while our attention for the most part is looking the other way. Normally, the only time that we can catch a glimpse of what the inward-facing part of our minds is doing is when we are asleep — our dreams, usually showing what appear to be random and non-rational connections in motion, are quite unlike our conscious experience in that they seem to take place in a different ‘dimension’ in which the daytime world has often completely or largely vanished and we are living different lives.
The fact that the operations of the inward mind are largely invisible to us leads us naturally to conclude that they are less important, and that the main event is what happens when we are awake and outward-facing: that’s what we normally call ‘Life’ and that’s where the bulk of our attention is on a day-to-day basis. Sleep is something we do for a relatively small portion of our day; everything that matters seems to take place while our eyes are open, in the outer world.
But this merits a closer look.
Close your eyes now, and shut out that outer world for a moment: you might be impressed or even astonished to detect an immense amount of activity occurring 'in your head’ which has nothing or very little to do with the world around you. Pause and look and listen — all kinds of things are taking place ‘in the dark’. Right now, you might catch a glimpse of some kind of skating race taking place in a 19th century park, everyone dressed in old clothes; or perhaps overhear a conversation between two old ladies over a cup of tea; or maybe you just get coloured shapes like kites flying around. It all depends on how sensitive you are to that inner world — some people might see nothing but blackness and hear nothing but silence. For the latter, you’ll just have to take it on faith that the inner world is active all the time in ways often quite unrelated to the individual’s physical surroundings or even mental anxieties.
It’s as though we are dreaming all the time, but don’t notice the dreams until we fall asleep and shut out the daylight.
That there doesn’t appear to be any reason or order in what we perceive inwardly shouldn’t come as a surprise: it’s the outer world that demands measurement and order and logic and sequence. The inner world, freed from any such parameters, can connect up however it wishes: faces from our past link up with the faces of strangers; voices we haven’t heard before have conversations with old relatives; events we’ve never seen unfold in sequences which defy rationality and evoke emotions which might be unexpected.
That inner world seems larger: it’s composed of elements we have and have not experienced and seems to possess a more-than-global span; its events and adventures appear to lie outside time and space. Yet they remain comprehensible to a degree: though they might be very strange, they are not normally insane gibberish or maddening, unfamiliar or wildly incoherent, unless we are suffering from a fever. ‘Up’ tends to remain ‘up’; language seems to remain largely intelligible; and though the pattern of things is often surreal, there is a kind of internal logic to it, isn’t there?
But what has it to do with the amygdala?
Well, think of it like this: if the ordinary human being spends most of his or her time looking outward, the amygdala, along with the rest of the parasympathetic nervous system, has arisen to help guide and protect that person in that world. The constant scanning of the environment and automatic triggering of ‘fight/flight’ responses is part of the outward-looking emphasis, isn’t it? So instead of regarding the amygdala as part of the ‘unconscious’, under our new terminology, it’s actually part of that outward view. If we were to accept that all that really mattered was this outward perspective, and that the inward-looking part of ourselves was only important when we were asleep, we could dispense with talking about that inward view without much fear of it muddying the waters of reason.
BUT — and it’s a big But — if the inward perspective isn’t something we can consign to our bedrooms, if it is actually an important part of our lives as a whole, and if we give it at least equal credence as our outward minds, then interesting things are revealed…
As we will see soon.