Overcoming the Amygdala Part 84


Maybe you had this experience at school: you were being taught something that had little interest for you, but rather than build up any interest or context or point out why you might be studying the subject, the teacher just droned on and on and expected you to absorb and assimilate everything about whatever it was. The result was that you failed to grasp the subject and perhaps rejected it as useless.

This happened to me with trigonometry in my last year of schooling. Trigonometry is defined as ‘that branch of mathematics dealing with the relations of the sides and angles of triangles and with the relevant functions of any angles’. No attempt was made to explain why it was important that we know all about it — we weren’t even given the definition above. We were just bombarded with formulas, terms and puzzles and expected to know how to ‘do' it after a few lessons.

Over a decade later, I met a surveyor whose job it was to build roads. I noticed one day that he was scribbling some formulae down on a scrap of paper and I recognised them as the things that we used to do at school years before. I asked him what he was doing, and he explained that he was calculating the curvature of a road he was building. So all those formulae did have a purpose!

This same phenomenon occurs in every field of thought or human action.

Until students are required to work in areas of actual practice as part of their studies, they often find that data they have been taught is almost incomprehensible; as soon as they grasp some kind of purpose and context, they begin to see what they are doing. Without an understanding of workable purposes and contexts, understanding goes down.

The theory and practical elements of a subject need to be in balance. Even better, the purposes and ideals of a subject need to be made clear.

There are probably a number of subjects you studied at school, and perhaps beyond, which would have benefited enormously from a clarification of their purpose. This would undoubtedly have helped you not only understand those subjects better, but your amygdala would have been less triggered because you could perceive and comprehend what you were doing and why.


Grouping Data

Data can be grouped in various ways.

You can group things according to location, as in geography, or in time, as in history, or in terms of emotional closeness, as when you list favourites, or alphabetically, or numerically, and so forth.

If you place a datum into the wrong body of data for it, you get a departure — something present that shouldn’t be there, or something absent that should. A wristwatch in a film about the Battle of Hastings, for example, or an address for someone in London who actually lives in New York — these things stand out in the body of data in which they’ve been placed, provided that you have enough familiarity with that body.

Often the response to such displacements is to make distortive connections. A new cognitive distortion is dreamed up and put into the body of data to explain why the incorrect item is included. ‘Oh well, maybe it wasn’t a wrist watch, just a bracelet’ or ‘Maybe they are so rich they have addresses on both sides of the Atlantic’. Cognitive distortions like this occur when the person lacks familiarity with the scene or lacks the courage to accept that something just shouldn’t be there.

Your brain constantly strains to correctly classify things into their own zones and either gets very imaginative and creative when it cannot do so, or shuts down and simply reacts.

You can get very basic and primitive responses when something turns up where it is supposed that it shouldn’t be — just look at some attitudes to race and migration as an example.

On the other hand, both humour and detecting criminals are based on recognising rejection, absurd departures and finding data where it shouldn’t be.

Many people accept departures with an amazing peace of mind by imagining connecting links or assuming they do not know enough. Many shut down their perceptions so that they don’t actually ‘see’ anything which doesn’t fit in with their expectations of a particular area. I once performed a complex first aid procedure in the middle of Liverpool Street Railway Station in London as thousands of people swarmed by. Not one person stopped to ask what was going on; not one person even glanced in our direction. They had determined, through their own projections onto the scene, what they were going to see. A person full of cognitive distortions could often be said to be ‘seeing’ a completely different environment to another.

But this isn’t because a cognitively distorted person is ‘crazy’ — almost the contrary. The person who uses cognitive distortions to perceive their environment is doing so in an ongoing attempt to make that environment make sense. People who grow up in abusive surroundings, for example, often rationalise to themselves that their abuser really loves them and that the abuse they are receiving from the person is the ‘best that the person can manage at the moment’ or some other such distortive conclusion. All such conclusions, twisted though they might appear to be to an observer, are attempts to make things appear logical.

Saner people can see data, items or actions that have been wrongly grouped in with a body of data. Mechanics, doctors, teachers, drivers, pilots, artists — all of them have a familiarity with their particular bodies of data and can spot quickly when something appears which doesn’t belong — but place any of those people in an environment with which they are not familiar and they will quickly fail to see that smoke appearing from inside an engine or a person breathing in a particular way or whatever is an indication that something is wrong. They might think ‘Oh, that must be the engine burning off some oil’ or ‘Perhaps it’s the new drugs making him breathe like that’ and a potential disaster might occur.

When a person has some idea of the overall picture, he or she should be able to separate the data in it into similar groupings.

If a person has trouble relating items of data to its proper body of data (if he or she were ‘shutting down’ perceptions to avoid strangeness, or inventing creative links to make things make sense) he would have an awful lot of trouble with his or her amygdala, because the amygdala takes a simple ‘lighthouse’ approach — it shines a projection onto its surroundings and ‘pings’ back obvious departures. Someone might struggle to twist those ‘pings’ in order to make the scene look calmer, but eventually the amygdala’s alarms will prevail and anxiety will result: nameless, formless and apparently target-less anxiety based on a general ‘feeling’ that ‘something is wrong’.

The solution is to learn to observe, to think and to analyse correctly.

That’s what we’re doing here.

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