Overcoming the Amygdala Part 67
We’re investigating the amygdala from a different angle, by looking at what makes it tick — not as a biological mechanism which can be understood fairly straightforwardly, but as a projector of ideal scenarios.
If you’ve been following this series, you’ll be familiar by now with the general notion that something in our heads projects our pictures onto the world, and then we receive ‘signals’ back whenever something out there doesn’t quite match with what was projected. These signals are then used to activate our flight/fight responses beneath our conscious awareness — sweaty palms, faster heart rate, waves of terror, and so on, of which our anxiety is composed. We can look at ways of dealing with all this from the ‘sharp end’, by calming ourselves using meditation and breathing and so on, or further up the chain of causation by examining any cognitive distortion which may be twisting the way we see things, or we can go deeper, into the factors behind the projection of pictures.
This latter step — looking in as much detail as we can at the inner workings of our minds — yields some interesting insights, and has the added advantage of not being dependent at all on any outside factor.
All outside factors can be seen as projections of internal situations.
In other words, the reason that we are anxious about something occurring in our external world is because of the way we project inner concerns onto it.
‘That’s all very well,’ someone may argue, ‘but if you’re being dive-bombed by a warplane while you’re out on the open road, you can hardly claim that your anxiety is a projection!’
Well, yes and no.
The greater the obvious stress in any given scenario, the harder it is to find corresponding simple inner factors which are producing it. That’s because, when it seems that the reasons for panic are very immediate and clearly external, we have to go deeper into what it means to be human, to be mortal, to be in a physical body, to be participating in some way in a human existence, to discover the source of the projections.
If you were being dive-bombed on the open road, you would be fearful for your life, your physical, mortal life, your occupancy of your body in the current framework of reality which suggests mortality and all the rest of it. Your amygdala, sensing an enormous departure from the ideal of ‘being alive as a human’, would be ringing every alarm bell which it could find in its urge to get you to flee the scene.
But its judgement of what constitutes a ‘departure’ would nevertheless be based on some kind of ideal scenario projected outward, even if that projection was as basic as ‘being alive’.
What constituted ‘being alive’, at that moment in time, would be the template against which your amygdala measured risks — and so that projection would remain the source of your anxiety.
If you somehow knew that ‘being alive’ could be extended beyond the realms of a bodily existence — if, in other words, your ideal scene changed so that losing your body was no longer a ‘departure’ — your amygdala would remain calm: ‘Nothing to see here,’ it might report. ‘Human loses body in dive-bombing incident — no problem.’
OK, a ridiculously extreme example — but one used here to illustrate the principle that anxiety stems from projected ideal scenes, and that, if we could adjust our ideal scenes, we could nip a great deal of anxiety in the bud and suffer far less from it, depending of course on what new ideal scene we wanted to project.
The core of things is this: we project things onto the world around us, and use the signals coming back to determine how anxious or not we should be.
Pain and Death
That means that, in principle, we should look more closely at exactly what we are projecting.
What we term ‘the human condition’ is largely determined by this concept of projection: we suffer, or appear to suffer, in direct correspondence to apparent departures from our own projections, or projections with which we have agreed. Thus, pain and death, which are apparently the lot of mortal man, only arise as problems in the light of a projection of painlessness and immortality. Without such projected ideals, pain and death would not be perceived as problems. If we had an expectation of pain, to put it another way, experiencing it would be no cause for anxiety, just as we have the expectation of seeing when we open our eyes — pain would simply be part and parcel of our existence, not something to complain about or be worried about. However, the instant that we project the ideal of ‘no pain’ onto a set of circumstances, we activate our amygdalas, which begin to look for departures from the ‘no pain’ scenario.
When a doctor or nurse says something like ‘You’ll feel a sharp scratch’ just before giving you an injection, he or she reduces slightly your expectation of ‘no pain’ and the injection becomes a tiny bit easier to bear; if they gave no such warning, the injection is perceived as a stark departure from a ‘no pain’ expectation and feels fractionally worse.
If we conceived of ourselves as immortal beings, the idea of death would hold no worries for us. As soon as we project ‘I have only one life’ onto our existence, the amygdala starts to probe for risks to that life; change the ideal scene to ‘I live many lives and am a spiritual being’, and the risks (and anxieties) fall away to some extent.
It’s enough to make you religious…
But this isn’t a methodology for becoming a monk or a Jedi (though feel free to walk that path if you wish) — it’s a way of examining how our minds actually work, as opposed to how we assume they’re working. And more than that, it’s a guide to taking back control of our anxiety levels.
A Small Exercise
If you’re still struggling with this — and I can assure you that you won’t be alone in that struggle, if you are — here’s a simple exercise which might help.
Take a pencil — one of your own, preferably, for reasons which will swiftly become apparent — and snap it in half. Now hold it up and project onto it your picture of an ideal pencil.
By projecting onto the broken pencil the image of an unbroken one, you can immediately see the departure from the ideal. Done with some concentration, you can not only see the departure but perhaps figure out how to repair it.
I once knew a fellow in Australia who was an expert with machines. He had an almost extrasensory power when it came to figuring out what was wrong with any mechanical engine. He told me once of a client who came to him with an E-type Jaguar car which had some kind of engine problem. The client had already spent thousands trying to discover what was wrong with the Jaguar mechanically, to no avail. My friend told him to start the car. After listening for a few minutes, the client was given a quote for $10,002.00.
‘OK, but what’s wrong with the car?’ the client asked, flummoxed.
My friend went underneath the chassis and removed and replaced a small oil filter, no larger than a large coin, in one of the fuel lines. On restarting the car, all engine problems disappeared.
‘The $2.00 is for the oil filter,’ my friend said. ‘The $10,000 is for my knowledge.’
I don’t know if he was ever paid, but my point is that my friend knew the exact ideal scene to project upon the client’s car, and was thus able to detect the tiny departure from it which gave a solution to the problem.
We’re doing something similar to this all the time, throughout each day: projecting what we consider to be ideal scenes onto our surroundings, our bodies, our relationships, our jobs, our societies and much more. ‘Pinging’ back to us come the detected departures, and they give rise to the amygdalic warnings which are the substance of our anxieties and panic attacks.