Overcoming the Amygdala Part 77
What’s involved in being more responsible for our own thinking?
1. We need to ensure that the normal information flow we have available is sufficient to keep us abreast of anything that really matters, while not being so full of ‘news’ or so demanding that it absorbs all our attention and makes us worry. Arguably, as soon as media companies began ’24 hour news channels’, the general population, in the West at least, jumped up a notch or two in anxiety. That information then readily became accessible through devices we hold in our hands. We became ‘anxiety-driven’ under the umbrella of ‘knowing what’s going on’. 2. Once we have culled or trimmed our news feeds so that they are sane, we need to observe them actively and consciously — not ‘all the time’, but sufficient to keep an eye on the things that are really important. 3. We need to train ourselves to know what a ‘departure’ is, and when one appears, become very alert, consciously. 4. We need to be able to analyse departures not for their own value — a departure has hardly any value of its own — but in order to trace its source, quickly and easily. 5. Having isolated a source for most of the observed departures, we need to analyse that source more closely.
6. Direct inspection of the area indicated, rather than unconscious assumption, is the way forward.
What tends to happen for most of us at the moment, without the steps above, is:
1. We overwhelm our senses in an ongoing effort to ‘know what’s going on’. Too much volume of data, delivered too quickly, acts to confuse us. When confused, we tend to immediately grip onto unexamined data which we think we can trust — cognitive distortions, fixed ideas, ‘fight/flight’ mechanisms and so on. 2. Far from keeping an eye on the things that are really important, things come at us so fast that we can’t tell what’s important and what’s not. 3. We can’t really spot what a ‘departure’ is, because we are largely unaware of the projections we are beaming out onto our surroundings. 4. Far from being able to analyse departures to find their source, we lose track of the notion that anything even has a source — it feels like the cause of our difficulties is within us, but beyond our understanding. So we fail to find out any real causes, and are a million miles from direct inspection of anything, lost in the swirling worries in our minds.
But it’s hard to learn how to think. Even as children, we were never really taught it — how could we be? Our parents and teachers didn’t know how to think either, for the most part.
The good news is that, no matter how old or mentally worn down by anxiety you are, you can learn how to think. And when you apply what you know, your amygdalic activity can reduce dramatically.
Here’s an example of some fast thinking in an emergency: an experienced hunter is walking through the jungle. He hears a hiss that shouldn't be (a departure). He freezes and scans the area and sees nothing alarming but a tiny movement of leaves to his left. Combining sight and hearing, he pinpoints the exact area and moves forward slowly to get a better look. Sees a harmless grass snake slithering away. Continues on his way.
‘But that’s just normal thinking?’ you might say. And you’d be right — but it’s a level of thinking rarely applied in today’s world to every situation. A person lacking the hunter’s experience or ability to think might respond this way:
Walking through the jungle. Hears a hiss — doesn’t know what should or shouldn't be, and so doesn’t know what to expect. Freezes and scans the area but sees tiny movements and hears tiny sounds everywhere. Sees a harmless grass snake slithering away, but only recognises ‘Snake!’ Amygdala, already triggered by the initial hiss, prompts a flight/fight reaction and person panics and runs, possibly straight into greater danger.
This latter response is clearly more widespread in the human world, even in not-quite-so-dramatic situations. We have to train in the more analytical approach. Longer term, less urgent situations mean that the analytical process can be slowed down.
An experienced teacher is teaching a class. She hears a student misbehaving behind her. She scans the area and sees nothing but a tiny movement of paper to her left. Combining sight and hearing, she pinpoints the exact area and moves forward slowly to get a better look. She spots a note being passed around covertly. She stops the class and covers the last points she was making, picking up and dealing with anything that was misunderstood and aligning it to both the immediate and medium term goals of the students. Interest from the group picks up markedly. She continues with her lesson plan with the class now ‘onside’.
An inexperienced teacher might respond this way:
Teaching a class. Hears misbehaviour — doesn’t have any comparatives to judge the degree of misbehaviour, so doesn’t know what should or shouldn't be. Stops the class, panics, and gives everyone detention or some other punishment. Class becomes disaffected, and her lessons from thereon out become more difficult to deliver.
Thinking Again and Again
Sometimes conscious thinking has to be done over and over to get a scenario closer to its ideal. It might take several lessons, in the example given above, before a teacher has complete command of and affinity with a group of students. Blunders might still be made. But constant application of the six steps above will result in a calmer, more orderly and more productive scene, whether we’re talking about a school classroom, an office, a company or a government.
How exactly do we learn how to think?