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Overcoming the Amygdala Part 60

Using our experimental model, we can establish that human beings have two basic modes of operation: they look outward, and perceive and measure and experience a set of surroundings (including their own mental ‘furniture’); and they look inward, a mode particularly noticeable in dreams, when the outer world is closed down as in times of sleep.

Looking outward seems to take up most of the ordinary human being’s time and energy, and also appears to require the parasympathetic nervous system as a back-up mechanism to scan that outward environment constantly, looking for potential trouble. Consequently, we tend to assign all the importance to that outward perspective and relegate the inner view to the bedroom or the psychiatrist’s couch.

But what if that inner view were at least as important as the outer one? What if we were to assign equal importance to both modes, in an attempt to better understand what’s going on with our amygdala (apart from anything else)?

Try to put aside the so-called ‘conscious’ outwardly scanning mind for a moment, and imagine that, instead of sweeping your environment constantly like a kind of living radar machine, you were placing your attention on the world inside.

What do we first notice about it?

Well, one of the things that differs most about the inner world that we see when we close our eyes and pay attention to it is that it is relatively unstable — a great deal more about it seems in flux, unconnected, random — or at least not connected in ways that our rational minds understand. Whereas our outward-facing brains connect up the elements in our physical environments to create recognisable ‘rooms’ and other spaces, with floors, ceilings, walls and furniture which seem to maintain secure relationships with each other, our inner intellects find that everything is far more ‘malleable’: we can be walking down a street in San Francisco at one moment, then we’re aboard a pirate ship in the next; we can be having a conversation with an old friend but then a moment later we have lost him in a crowd and are being summoned to an ambassadorial party in Vienna. In other words, the usual causal relationships governed by time and space which are apparently in firm operation in the outer world are suspended inside and just about anything can happen.

Cause and Effect, the principles we learn to adapt to and use while we are still children, have little sway in the inner world: we can drop a spoon outside and expect it to hit the floor, while inside it could turn into a teapot and fly away or vanish.

Another fundamental that we might notice is that the inner world seems to contain a great deal more significance, even though much of it eludes rational sense: a relationship there can seem full of love and passion, a picture on the wall evocative of so much emotion, a doorway opening lead to floods of joy or relief or indescribable sensations — compared to the dry and comparatively dull outer world, where things remain reasonable, motionless and inert most of the time. In the inner world, a friend saying something to us can fill us with anticipation and a sense of impending meaning; that same friend saying something to us outside conveys nothing but words, by comparison. So in one way the inner world is full of riches and depth, but no clear, concise rational meanings, while the outer world is packed with superficiality and predictability to the point of dullness.

In the outer world, a chair is a chair; in the inner world, a chair can be anything, including a symbol of anything that a piece of furniture can be stretched to represent symbolically.

The advantages of the outer world seem clear: cause and effect rules and stable relationships between things, though devoid of much meaning or emotional significance, yield relative predictability and constancy.

The inner world is wilder: it wouldn’t be quite true to claim that there are no rules at all, but they are opaque; relationships between things seem in flux; meaning and emotional significance abound, but cannot be summarised rationally; predictability and constancy are not at home here.

If the inner world had the equivalent of a parasympathetic nervous system it would have to operate on different criteria because what might constitute a ‘departure’ inwardly speaking would be much harder to determine. And that yields an important insight in our amygdalic adventures:

Departures from the ideal are only detectable in conditions of relative stability.

In other words, if everything is in motion, or capable of being in motion at any moment, what constitutes a departure from the ideal? Indeed, what constitutes an ideal?

Amygdalas, it turns out, are only useful in environments where most things are stable and unchanging.


Going back to an instance we used much earlier: if you were walking through a jungle and a sabre-toothed tiger suddenly leapt out at you, the departure from the ideal is clear — the tiger poses a threat when compared to the relative safety of a tiger-free jungle. The amygdala is triggered, and you are immediately equipped with biological fight/flight responses without having to think.

But what if you were walking through a jungle and a sabre-toothed tiger suddenly leapt out at you — but the jungle changed rapidly into a Victorian drawing room and the tiger turned out to be the pet of your long-lost Aunt Maude? She appears with tea and strokes the tiger, now no larger than a house cat, while you muse on how long it’s been since you saw your aunt (whom you’ve never heard of in the outer world).

Dream-like? Exactly — the whole reality of the inner world is like that of a dream. Or, to put it in a more enlightening way, dreams are a glimpse of what our inner worlds are actually like.

You don’t really need a parasympathetic nervous system in the inner world — or at least not one like the outer one. That’s because ideal scenarios are not as fixed, meaning that departures from them are flexible. What can appear to be a menace at one point can be revealed to be nothing to worry about immediately afterwards — or conversely, something which appears innocent in one moment can possess the characteristics of menace unexpectedly in the next.

Reason has a different role inside.

Or, to put it another way, whereas reason exists to calculate our prospects of survival and advancement in the outer world, the same kind of thinking capability in the inner world is focused mainly on emotional meaning and symbolic significance. A high tower in the outer world may activate our amygdalas into making us feel dizzy; in the inner world, we may feel an inkling of dizziness but everything means something and the tower becomes much more symbolic than it seemed in the outer world.

So our experimental picture of a human being gives us a creature who exists in two worlds: one is material, relatively fixed, composed of space and time, where things obey rules and follow a Cause and Effect sequence; the other is immaterial, in flux, composed of fluctuating spaces and times, where there are rules but they seem opaque and where things connect with each other by significance and emotion rather than rationally. Bias tends to make us value one world more than the other, but if we remove the bias as much as we can, new intra-human relationships emerge.

Mortality plays a big part in the outer world. We are physically aware — and our amygdalas remind us constantly —- that real danger to our continued persistence as individuals is present and must be dealt with. In the inner world, though great feelings of menace and danger are present — as in nightmares — it’s not clear that we can’t somehow persist. I think the closest I came to experiencing ‘death’ in a dream was when I was being chased by a gunman. He eventually caught me and held his gun to my head. I could see no way of escape — except one: I forced myself to wake up. Terror exists internally, but perhaps has a different role.

If we, as part of our experiment, refuse to be prejudiced against the inner world and hold it to be at least of equal importance, our understanding of ourselves changes. Instead of rational beings who are occasionally haunted by a shadowy but lesser self, we become travellers in different dimensions: in one world, we are dealing with solidity and the rules of Cause, Effect, Space and Time over which we appear to have little rational control, in an attempt to preserve a physical form; while in the other, we roam in an ephemeral universe, exploring connections and symbolic significances over which we appear to have little rational control, in an attempt to…what? To experience? To endure? To perceive? It’s pretty clear that physical survival is a major part of our participation in the outer world, but it’s not clear what the inner world's goal is. We tend to assume that the significances we perceive in dreams, if there are any, are ‘telling us something’ about the outer, so-called ‘real’ world — but (if we accept an equality between worlds) we could probably cogently argue that the outer world is presenting us with experiences for coping better with the inner.

Where is the amygdala and anxiety in all this?

Stay tuned.


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