Sunday, March 14, 2010

Amygdala Hijacks and You

Key: italics= [sic]

What's your flavor?
Well, apparently almond, since that's the etymology of this almondform part of the proto or old mammalian brain, i.e., limbic system. Some people call the amygdala the "reptilian brain," which is actually the brainstem. The Mr. Wizard of philosophy, Howard Richards, who first introduced me to this exciting piece of the noodle brought it up in the course of Philosophy of Education.  This was back in '02 when the amygdala hijack just started becoming all the rage in pop psychology (pun intended).  I believe it had to do with the conundrums of educating angry, messedup kids. While those who are brought up in violent environments will tend to exercise less control over their fight (and perhaps flight) responses, all human beings, even those raised in the most ascetic and mindful or "Tao" cultures will succumb to the might of this tiny ancient brain. Yes, it's nutty.

But all puns aside, here is the best video introduction to the amygdala I've seen on the interwebs, enjoy!  Is it me, or does he seem to be having a little amygdala hijack?

Here's a little  mnemonic song I wrote for you about the chain reactions going on in our hot heads:
~the amygdala reacts to the hormones, hormones come from adrenals, the adrenals connect to the pituitary, the pituitary's connected to the hypothalamus, and oh how they scare!~

I risk being didactic by saying that we humans really need to recognize and accept the fact that this 18 minute takeover is common and unavoidable.
When was the last time you raised your voice (or wanted to)? AmygdaBAM!
Did you ever break a sweat during a test or in front of a crowd? AmygdaBAM!
Flip the bird in traffic? Amygdabam!
Shocked at a surprise birthday party? Amygdabam!
Just learn that your child/spouse/parent/best friend is gay? Amygdabam!
Flashbacks, PTSD? Amygdabam!
The time you climbed the tree licketysplit at the sight of a sabertooth tiger? Amygdabam!
Sweaty palms at the movie theater (from your date or the horror)? Amygdabam!
Turned down for a job or promotion? Amygdabam!
Gramma lifts the car to free you from certain death? Amygdabam!    See, aren't hormones like corticosteroids (cortisol), adrenaline (epinephrine/norepinephrine) great?!

What are you "favorite" hijack moments.  We can all recall ones that live on in infamy.  What events tend to trigger your hijacks?  How often do you have them?  I encourage you to make a list.  The more you become aware, the less they have the power to totally determine your thoughts and actions.

How about when you ate that tub of ice cream in one sitting, or... Many of our mindless activities, even enjoyable leisure activities are ways we deal with the emotional onslaught of all those neurochemicals and associated body sensations (acid stomach, tight shoulders/neck, the infamous tension headache). My father dealt with his anxiety attacks (amygdala hijacks) by running to the ole microsoft and playing minesweeper and hearts and taking about three Xanax (alprazolam).

Please, accept this morally neutral phenomenon as soon as possible. It's neither an evil that must be exorcised, nor a benign entity that deserves free reign over our behavior. Adrenal takeover of your executive functioning: your reasoning, your smarts, your sense of empathy, fairness, justice, love, peace, etcetera - gone. And then it's followed by a chemical residue (extraneous stress hormones) for three to four hours.

Boo.  I mean, yay? Well, most of us would be dead or severely injured without a properly functioning amygdala. By the way, freezing, or shutting down is also symptomatic of said hijack. Whether you recognize it or not, you are familiar, and you play host to this frequent visitor that we sometimes indulge. I know I do! The television and the endless interwebs rabbitholes are my favorite mindless past-time that help me remain in that brainless non-executive state of functioning. I can prolong the numb residuals of adrenal hormones (steroids!). Not only does the interaction of hormones and the old brain help granny to lift that car off the baby, but it also helps you remember! Yes, if you haven't noticed, emotions help with long-term memory.

“The amygdala is promiscuous as to the actual experience,” McGaugh says. “It’s just activated by emotional arousal. It doesn’t have to be a negative emotional experience. If it’s positive and it engages the amygdala, it will be a stronger memory.” Unforgettable: Memory Research., D. Pendick

This is why we sometimes wallow immediately following a hijack. Many of us seek to avoid the traumatic emotional memories and high stress levels associated with certain incidents our brain recognizes. Your brain remembers getting called into the principal's office when the boss wants to talk with you in private at an odd point of the day. Just like the Iraq vet "recalls" the IED explosion when the care engine backfires. And, as opposed to what my above-referenced presenter said, we can't stop it, prevent it, placate it. And you shouldn't always want to. We don't live in a world made of marshmallow fluff inhabited only by Pollyannas and HH Dalai Lama. We need to dodge the bullets and react quickly when we're needed to serve with valor.

I think we live in amazing times where we can know and even predict what will happen inside our body and brains. As humans get used to the idea of the macrocosm (satellite images of Earth, the UN, global trade, the interwebs), I hope we mentally digest the wisdom of the microcosm. Our bodies are fabulous and mystical machines (if ever an oxymoron), and if we treat them (and nature) as our allies, then we should be able to live healthier, happier lives, and save the planet while we're at it.

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