Don’t Blame Your Amygdala: Just Doing Its Job

In the last post we saw that one’s story- a narrative used to explain what’s going on and guide what to do- begins with one’s worldview: how a person believes the world works, the rules used to navigate that world, and where the person sees themself fitting in that world- a template that gives a starting point in figuring out how to move through the world we live in.

And we saw that this worldview operates well outside awareness in the Hidden Brain.

And what we also know is the brain much prefers to spend its energy defending that story. Re-thinking its version just takes too much energy, and it will only go there when it has to. We saw some examples when a story did change, and depending on the situation, sometimes even the underlying worldview changed. But that takes a catalyst impactful enough to make it clear the worldview no longer served them well. Whether the pandemic, the protests or moving forward from the election, insight into why our brain acts this way holds the key to the transition from problem thinking to dilemma thinking and achieving substantive change that is sustainable. So what keeps the brain so intent at holding onto its story, even when faced with clearly conflicting observations?

First, the brain looks to protect what it has. It operates on the premise that a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. In other words, if what I have done in the past has worked well enough, why would I take a chance on something different? Kahneman and Tzversky demonstrated that we are less likely to gamble on something that could be better if that risks losing something valuable we already have. But if we are already losing something, we are willing to take that gamble to get it back, even if that gamble could end up in something even worse. (Kahneman, Tversky. “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk.” Econometrica 47, no. 2 (1979): 263-291).

Gregory Berns and colleagues studied this preference to defend by placing participants expressing very strongly held opinions in an fMRI. The scan showed a very active amygdala lighting up. Then, they offered participants $100 if they would vote differently on a survey. Some would and some would not. Those who were open to that were put back in the fMRI. Now it was not the amygdala, but areas of the prefrontal cortex that lit up. These people were literally in a different frame of mind when they had a very fixed view compared with a more open perspective. (Berns et al. “The Price Of Your Soul: Neural Evidence for the Non-Utilitarian Representation fo Sacred Values.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 367, no 1589 (2012):74-762 ). Now, of course, it’s impossible to know whether they held onto their view so tightly because of an active amygdala, or had an active amygdala because they were so committed to that view. Regardless, don’t expect much of a conversation with someone processing primarily through their amygdala, especially if they feel they have something valuable to lose.

This makes sense if you think about what the amygdala does. It is the stress response/ fright or flight area. It represents self concerns and survival. The amygdala causes the secretion of adrenaline among other neurotransmitters. Adrenaline causes a shunting of blood to the muscles, so they are ready to act. Vision narrows to focus on the immediate threat. As you can imagine, this is not exactly a recipe for broad consideration of multiple perspectives with a mutual goal of resolving a difference of opinion. Rather, this is a system geared to respond to a threat.

Recall, if you will, a situation this past week that demanded your attention. What popped into your mind first? Did you go straight to all the things that were not good or could go wrong, or to the potential for benefit if it went well. In other words, did you tend to see it as a glass half empty or as half full. This is a good proxy for understanding your worldview. (By the way, neither is better; in fact, they are complimentary, but each of us seems to have a preference- the pessimist vs the optimist.)

What if you also see the world as a zero sum game, where someone else’s advancement means by definition you will be left behind? It does not take much of a leap to see threat and a stimulated amygdala. Contrast this with how it feels if the world is an ever expanding pie, in which any advancement can lead to improvement for everyone.

It turns out that a person with a zero sum world view and a tendency to focus on what can go wrong tends to have a larger amygdala. (d It is not clear whether that is because their amygdala is just larger by genetics resulting in that view, or larger because it has gotten a lot of use. This correlates with more conservative political and social viewpoints compared with people who have a more liberal perspective, although people at either end of the spectrum can certainly hold their views passionately. But consider this- so many people on either side of our political divide feel their world is at risk, a threat that certainly fires up the amygdala. So, it is not too hard to see why common ground is so difficult to come by when the differences and staunchly defended stories are so divergent.

Nonetheless, the brain does have a mechanism to factor the experience of others into its decision making matrix. Mirror neurons are specialized cells in the motor and sensory areas of the brain. They fire when you see someone doing or feeling something. If you watch me raise my thumb, those mirror neurons in the area of your brain that control your thumb are firing even though your thumb is not moving. When you slow down driving past an accident site, mirror neurons are firing because you ‘feel’ the pain of those injured in the wreck. That leads to what is called empathy. But given our polarized world, it doesn’t seem there is much mirror neuron activity going on.

The late Dr E Bruneau studied conflict from a biologic and neuroscientific perspective and concluded that it was not just the inability to express empathy. He observed that even as a person demonized others, they were still quite capable of showing empathy. Demonstrating empathy toward another had less to do with the capacity to show empathy and more to do with how that person viewed the other. ( ). We feel bad when something bad happens to someone in the group, but less so when the same thing happens to someone we don’t identify with. Circling the wagons within one’s identity group in times of stress is a protective strategy, but it is also a recipe for seeing the world through the amygdala.

But it is not only about empathy and group identity. Hogeven and colleagues placed participants in scenarios where they had an increasing degree of power and control. The more power and control, the less mirror neuron activity- the less the experience of others was incorporated into opinions and choices. (Hogeven et al.”Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others.”Journal of Experimental Psychology 143, no 2,(2014):755-762). The story a person crafts- The World As I Want It To Be- gives agency to act on what is believed to be right and correct and creates its own scenario of increasing power and control. With that, less attention is afforded to others, especially if not in ‘our group.’

In the midst of this pandemic, we are all feeling a loss of control. Decisions and choices that a person had every ability to make before are now challenged by considerations that previously just did not apply so much. I may choose not to wear a mask and assume the risk to me, but now that choice carries an outsized impact on the health and safety of others. That loss of control represents a threat, especially ‘if someone else is telling me what to do when before I could decide on my own.’ A triggered amygdala just wants to protect the individual, and this translates to ‘I’m not wearing a mask’ in order to reclaim some control that has been wrested away. And as that sense of control increases, attention to others diminishes further.

The power and control to fend off threat tilts one’s ‘thinking’ toward the amygdala and towards the actions that result in one’s success and survival given the concern of the moment, even at the expense of other concerns and other people. Combining this with the prevailing worldview of a glass half empty and a zero sum game makes a compelling case for a story that sprouts from the amygdala. The result is to anchor on problem thinking, on the World As I Want It To Be, on the ‘solution’ to ‘what matters the most to me,’ and defending that story at any cost.

We are just not aware of how our story comes about or the processing involved to arrive there. All that comes to mind is the story, passed on to the prefrontal cortex where it enlists its press secretary function to attach words, assemble the memories and just those facts that defend, justify, and rationalize the story. And in the absence of taking into account all the details and factoring the full array of concerns, it is happy to fill in the blanks and connect dots that maybe aren’t actually connected.

Because the brain knows you must be all in in order to act, that story often takes on an air of inevitability. The feared outcome becomes the only possible outcome- another way to control ‘the world’. Everything the person then sees conforms to that outcome. Because there is no other possibility, anything or anyone who counters that outcome is seen as a threat that challenges one’s self image and self worth, and the very worldview and foundation a person stands upon- the very thing that has up to that point had seemed to work so well and been so successful. No wonder the brain resists re-visiting its story. No wonder it falls back on its tactics of discarding those conflicting details, discrediting the source, bullying and intimidating, and then seeing itself as a victim when The World As I Want It To Be and one’s very identity is at risk.

If we hope to foster the transition from problem thinking to dilemma thinking, then it must be acknowledged that the point of opportunity is not in the realm of facts, deliberation, thoughtful effort, or awareness- the ‘rational’ mind. It lies in how the ‘rational’ process interacts with the Hidden Brain realm, the actual place a person applies their values and preferences to the world as they see it. And because worldview also encompasses the way a person sees themselves in the world, this becomes a delicate dilemma- overcome the preference to defend, yet probe without being a threat.

Next time- how in the world can we do that?


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