There has been a great deal of interest lately in the practice of mindfulness, and more particularly how mindfulness and other contemplative practices actually affect the functioning of our brains. Many contemporary, scientific studies have been undertaken, completed and validated that show a direct correlation between practicing various forms of meditation and significant changes that take place in our brains when we do so. “Neuroplasticity” has become a new buzzword in the world of brain science, referring to the discovery of the flexibility and malleability of the brain, that it actually can change in shape and form throughout our lifetime.
Key to our understanding of how our brains work on a regular basis is acknowledging the battle that goes on between two important parts of this amazing organ . . . the Amygdala and the Prefrontal Cortex. The Amygdala is the most primitive part of our brain, and if you believe in scientific evolution as I do, then the Amygdala was the first part of our brain to form – hence, it is often referred to as the lizard brain or the reptilian brain.
On the other hand, the Prefrontal Cortex is the most recent area of our brain to form through the ages and is the most highly evolved part of our brain. Please see the illustration below indicating the locations of these parts of our brains.
The Amygdala is the center of our fight, flight or freeze response, and all mammals react in a similar fashion to fearful, stressful and worrisome events. Whenever we are subjected to fearful things, it is this most primitive part of our brain that lights up, comes “online” and takes charge of our behaviors. Our natural desire for safety and survival then causes us to default to some very basic and primal habitual behaviors when the Amygdala is in charge.
Conversely, the Prefrontal Cortex has been compared to our executive, control center. It is where we problem solve, rationalize, make reasoned choices and decisions, exercise impulse control and self-regulation and use our wisdom, insight and intuition. It is also our empathy center.
Now, here’s the disturbing news. When our primal Amygdala is in charge and is lit up like a bonfire, our Prefrontal Cortex simultaneously grows dim and actually often goes “offline.” From a strictly evolutionary perspective, there was no need many thousands of years ago, when early humans were being stalked by a hungry tiger, for any mindful pausing and thinking deeply. If we did, we became a quick and tasty meal for the pursuing predator.
Unfortunately, the brains of all mammals are still working this way because we have yet to evolve completely out of this mode of cerebral functioning. And even though most of us in the civilized world don’t have to be on the run from actual lions and tigers and bears in hungry pursuit, we do have many cultural and societal “predators,” some real and some imagined, that are constantly stalking us, stimulating our lizard brains, and simultaneously darkening and closing the door to our rational brains. This has been referred to as an “Amygdala hijacking.” It’s pure science.
So, where am I going with all of this? First, let me interject that I do not intend for this in any way to be a political statement, but rather a non-partisan assessment based on my interpretation of scientific findings (which unfortunately these days may be a political statement unto itself I suppose). It is my belief that we have a large part of our American culture today that can actually exclaim, “It’s not my fault, my Amygdala made me do it!” Or put another way, we have a significant part of our population that is suffering from the dreaded “Amygdala hijacking.”
For whatever reason, and there is a plethora of reasons dependent upon who you talk to and what their political or religious persuasion is, an extraordinary amount of fear is circulating around among us Americans. I actually think it all started with 9/11, and then we elected an African-American president . . . but regardless, there are many of us walking around zombie-like here in the States with blazing Amygdalan heads lit up like radioactive orbs, dragging our ugly lizard tails behind us.
And so the terrible tale unfolds (no pun intended.) There is a man who is running for President of the United States who has smelled the blood of the variously traumatized and is preying upon the fighting and fleeing of the legions of scampering squamata. And as you may have suspected, I am calling out and anointing Sir Donald of Trump as the great Amygdalan King. (Don’t stop reading now, or you are just admitting that your Amygdala is in charge and you are unable to rationally proceed.)
No presidential candidate in the history of the United States (except possibly George Wallace) has ever before been able to use fear like this master, regularly whipping his followers into what seem to be inexplicable and often primitive frenzies. How can this be in our civilized world? Many of us keep asking all the right questions, seeking rational answers for how such a man who relentlessly badgers and bullies his fellow human beings, which would normally be utterly distasteful and unacceptable in our culture, could be the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency. Again, there is an elementary scientific explanation for this madness.
Remember, when the old lizard brain is in control, the Prefrontal Cortex, or the enlightened place in our minds where we make reasoned and rational choices, exercise impulse control and self-regulation, use our wisdom and intuition, and where we are able to empathize with our fellow human beings even if we disagree with them, is completely and utterly and uncompromisingly unavailable to us.
It’s lights out!
It’s like being in a really dark room with no flashlight. This is why millions of scared Americans keep blindly following and supporting Trump in the face of the mounting evidence of his textbook, pathological narcissistic personality, inauthenticity, nastiness, and bombastic promises to “make America great again.” This is why so many of Trump’s followers don’t require the traditional presidential vetting or legitimate policy stances that we regularly require of our other candidates for this prestigious office. This is why they are able to stare the bullying, racism, cursing, meanness and demagoguery right in the face and act as if they don’t see it. This is why they stand by frozen and watch protesters being manhandled and abused at Trump rallies. This is why evangelicals here a man claim his love for the Bible and his own deep Christian faith, but completely overlook and ignore his blatantly unchristian behaviors and proposals. And many of them (us) are nervously laughing and cackling at it all (just watch the debate audiences), another classic sign of being insidiously traumatized.
Neuroscience has shown us that certain standards of civilized ethics just don’t matter anymore when we are living in a constant state of low-grade fear and anxiety and our automatic pilot, lizard brain has hijacked our senses and is telling us to run, fight, or freeze or we will be eaten alive! It’s a really confusing and dark place to be for modern human beings. Consequently, what is unfolding before us is an enormous American tragedy where we find normally rational and thoughtful people helplessly subjugated to this powerful, subconscious force of nature, madly stumbling around in a great, gathering darkness. More simply put, this is why so many ordinarily smart people are doing and saying some really fascinating and dumb things these days. But, it’s not their fault . . . their Amygdala made them do it.
(Stay tuned for Part Two of this story – How do we turn the lights back on? Is there a possible antidote for this political/cultural/neuroscientific predicament we find ourselves in? I have hinted at this in the opening paragraph of this blog)