Overcoming the Amygdala Part 61
As an experiment, then, we have created a being of two ‘halves’: not the ‘conscious/unconscious’ division with which we may be familiar from popular psychology, but an individual composed of an outward-facing person who uses rationality (as well as the parasympathetic nervous system) to navigate a solid world which operates according to the principles inherent in space/time, with a major goal of simply surviving that world for as long as possible in a form composed of its material; and an inward-facing person who floats in a non-solid world which operates according to unclear principles of significance and symbolism, where, if there are any goals, they seem to be something to do with experiencing meaning to some degree in an environment in which just about everything is in flux.
Astute readers will have noted that these two worlds, though we have separated them out for the purposes of elucidation, don’t exist independently, but rather they overlap. It seems, for example, that we ‘dream’ constantly, as a moment’s introversion will discover; and many of our dreams are like ‘plays' featuring characters from the solid daytime world (as well as many others who come from who-knows-where).
In fact, our day-to-day experience of Life is a blend of these two aspects: we think and calculate and perceive and measure and manipulate the outer reality, and we feel and experience and connect and ‘swim’ in the inner reality, often at the same time.
It’s possible to conclude that many of our problems as individuals stem from confusing the two aspects: we imagine that the outer world contains significance which it may not; and we are disappointed when the inner world does not behave as we think it should based on our knowledge of the outer one.
But that would be a premature conclusion. In fact, it’s more helpful to see these two halves as part of a unified whole.
It’s possible that our inner world projects onto our outer world, just as our outer world bleeds into our inner. The two halves are more like an organic unity, operating together to produce the experience we call… well, ‘experience’.
Arguably, all human beings right now are sharing this dual experience of themselves and calling it reality — a mixture of inner and outer, dreaming and solid, irrational and rational.
We experience dreams and desires inwardly, but we might also project these things outwardly in hope of them coming to fruition in the more solid terms of the physical world.
Then, if you’re following all this, perhaps the amygdala’s projections onto our surroundings stem from our inner world.
Where does the amygdala get its ideas from? From us — our inner worlds. We create, deep inside, ideas and ideals, dreams and desires, and then project them onto our environments.
The ‘pings’ that come from back from such projections reveal departures, as we have explored — and everything else that follows, including triggered nervous responses.
That means that our inner worlds are to some degree determining our anxieties.
What we dream and desire, we then project; and what comes back to us is all the departures from those projected dreams.
Our precise individual anxieties are clues to what is going on ‘beneath the surface’ of our individual inner selves.
If you have followed all of that, you might appreciate that it actually opens the door to life-changing transformations.
Tracking Down the Dream
There’s an important clarification to be made here: there are, it seems, two broad levels of amygdalic response.
1. The amygdala registers real life danger — the smell of smoke in a building indicating a fire, the presence of real pain in the body revealing a health problem, the sudden appearance of a sabre-toothed tiger, threatening life —and triggers fight/flight responses accordingly to protect the individual from peril.
2. The amygdala registers less distinct departures arising from ideals that we project onto the world around us, pinging back to us images of missing friends, missing situations, or unwanted presences according to scenarios which arise from deep within us.
The first might be considered a vital biological function, necessary to the physical survival of the individual organism; the second is far more subjective.
The first is pretty obvious; let’s look at some examples of the second kind.
Joseph experiences tremendous anxiety whenever he goes to work. That’s because his work colleague Judith causes him to react strangely. His amygdala pings back to him every time she walks into the office; he develops panic symptoms, freezes up, sweats profusely and is unable to speak. Even after she leaves, he is subjected to wave after wave of self-loathing as he realises that he has failed again to communicate his strong but undefined attraction for her. The real difficulty is that Joseph has no inkling of what is going on in his head: all he gets is the anxiety and self-hatred. He doesn’t see (because it’s part of his inner world, which he pays little conscious attention to) that Judith matches up to his innermost ideal of a woman; he has never examined that dreamlike thought and has never therefore developed the courage to express it. His amygdala is pinging back the absence of a constructive response from him - a departure. Only when he perceives that that is what is happening can he rise to the occasion, either by communicating to Judith or recognising that his own created ideals need adjustment. If he were to journey inward and discover, for example that either the image he has of a perfect woman is naive and unworkable, or perhaps confirm his desire for that image, he would gain the necessary psychic energy or confirmed unity of personality to be able to do something about it. But while he remains ignorant of his own internal factors, he suffers the consequences.
Meanwhile, Anthony experiences acute nervousness whenever he attends a public gathering, despite establishing each time that he is perfectly safe from any real danger. He finds that, in any crowd, he overheats and feels nauseous; he usually has to make an excuse and exit at once. What he has failed to spot — because most of his attention is on the outer world — is that his father instilled in him a loathing of other people and encouraged Anthony to be a loner and to develop plans to live on an isolated farm one day. Antony has largely forgotten these dreams consciously — but they linger deep in his inner world, and it is the projection of that ideal of isolation and solitude which kicks in the amygdala’s fight/flight response whenever he is at a large meeting of people. His amygdala considers that a crowd is a ‘departure’ from an ideal that he holds, out of sight, inwardly.
It’s not so much that Joseph or Anthony need to spend time meditating to cancel out the fears which their amygdalas are thrusting at them, though that might help a little — it’s that in their case, and in the cases of almost every other human being alive, there needs to be a recognition of wholeness. Instead of concentrating almost solely upon the outer world, to the detriment of an understanding of the inner self, most people need to approach a balance between internal and external, spotting what’s been going in within while continuing to operate outside.
In terms of workability, one way of coming to terms with all this is to track our amygdalic responses and categorise them as ‘legitimate’ or ‘suspect’. Legitimate responses include any obvious reaction to real-life danger, like fleeing from a fire or avoiding heavy, fast traffic or staying away from an infected zone; suspect responses might include things that are more subjective, like feeling terrified of white mice, or overly emotional in the presence of certain kinds of people, or an undefined aversion to particular smells.
Anything that, when brought to our attention, we can say to another, ‘Of course I’m anxious about that’ probably fits into the first category; anything which we might be nervous of admitting to or which, when we examine the fear analytically, it doesn’t quite make sense to us, probably fits into the second group.
That second group merits further examination.
What inner dream, one might ask, is being thwarted by one’s outer environment?
Look at the ‘pings’ which the amygdala is sending back: what are they clues to? What do they tell us about what we are projecting onto our surroundings?
Tracking down the dream then empowers us to inspect it more closely — is it something that we want to continue to dream? Or is it something that needs adjustment? There are no universally right or wrong answers — individuals will vary enormously and with great creativity as to what they dream inwardly.
But understanding the mechanics of it all frees human beings from layers of anxiety and can produce genuine enlightenment.