We’ve Nothing to Fear but an Overactive Amygdala

Anterior cingulate cortex.

The anterior cingulate is in orange. (Image via Wikipedia)

NaNoWriMo Day 22 word count: 40,141

This morning, during our daily “Good Morning” phone call (my husband goes to work before the kids and I wake up), my husband expressed concern about some things he’d read in the New York Times.

“There’s a lot of fear in the articles I read today,” he said. He went on to describe two situations in which the writers of various articles were expressing fear. Apparently, a lot of liberals are expressing fear about the current political climate.

Let me note here that this post is not going to be about politics. It’s about fear. I have no desire to discuss politics. It just annoys me.

And then there are a lot of people who are afraid of texting. Well, they’re afraid that kids these days are texting too much and that it’s negatively affecting their brain development and ruining their ability to think deeply and at length about a single topic.

My husband and I went back and forth about whether texting really is turning the brains of the future leaders of our country into little caffeinated prairie dogs. I agreed that it’s likely that the way we use media—including text messaging—today is probably changing the way our brains work. But I’m not certain that’s necessarily a problem. I mean, apparently ancient Greek scholars were certain that the written word was going to change our brains and ruin our ability to think. It has changed our brains, but I would argue that it hasn’t ruined our ability to think (but then, I might be a little biased). I suppose it’s always possible that, if we could look at all of human history from a distant enough perspective, we’d see the widespread adoption of the written word as the beginning of the end of human civilization, but I don’t think we could say that definitively at this point in time.

I also suggested that the people who fear texting are all people over 35 or so who don’t use texting on a regular basis, and so they’ve become Generation X’s crotchety old men railing about the kids today and how we were all so much more enlightened when we were their age because we used e-mail over a dial-up connection and all text glowed green against a black screen.

I wondered more what this multi-tasking might be doing to our capacity for interpersonal connection and our propensity towards reacting with fear rather than calmly analyzing a situation and coming to a rational and compassionate conclusion and, if necessary, solution.

In my spare time, I’ve begun reading How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman. They describe the activity of the anterior cingulate as it relates to the amygdala. The anterior cingulate is a brain “structure that is involved with emotional regulation, learning, and memory.” It also “plays a major role in lowering anxiety and irritability, and also enhances social awareness.” The activation of the anterior cingulate also decreases the symptoms of depression. The amygdala “governs your fight-or-flight response to a perceived or imagined fear.” Apparently, as the amygdala becomes more active, the anterior cingulate becomes less active. The opposite is also true, that as the anterior cingulate becomes more active, the amygdala becomes less active. They also mention that the brain really doesn’t know how to tell the difference between reality and fantasy (hence the “perceived or imagined fear” part of the amygdala description).

Meditation, which the authors define as any sustained focus of your brain regardless of the subject (this can include prayer, yogic breathing, playing a musical instrument, or just contemplating any of life’s “big questions”), increases activity in the anterior cingulate and decreases activity in the amygdala. It seems to me that multi-tasking precludes sustained focus and so potentially diminishes the activity of our anterior cingulate, making us more likely to experience fear and a fight-or-flight response whether a threat is real or imagined.

I’m wondering if the fear that the authors of the New York Times pieces my husband read this morning could be a result of their own personal lack of sustained focus. Maybe their own multi-tasking behavior (which, by all accounts, has become pretty much the norm in American society) has caused their amygdala to work overtime, leaving them more likely to feel fear, irritability, and anxiety than compassion.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t danger inherent in texting or in electing conservative ideologues to public office. There might be or there might not be. It’s the reaction people have to this perceived threat that interests me. If these things—or anything else that people are concerned about—truly are threats, then reacting with fear and anger isn’t likely to help us find a different path to take, and it certainly doesn’t facilitate open and intelligent discussion about the possible alternatives.

I was also thinking that, while I put myself on a Facebook fast for November simply to help give me more time to write while I’m working on my novel, maybe it’s also helping me to have the sustained focus necessary to write a novel by decreasing the amount of time I spend multi-tasking in my daily life. Maybe the craving I’ve been having for a religious or spiritual community and/or practice is also related to a personal need for less anxiety and more happiness. Maybe my brain’s smarter than I realize and knows better what it needs than I do.

I can always hope.

5 comments

  1. ArchibaldHukler · August 9, 2013

    A bit inaccurate. Unless you’re psychotic your brain knows the difference between reality and fantasy, just not every part of it (i.e. the amygdala).
    I’ve come to habitually negate my fears. The stronger the feeling of fear the more I tell myself “YOLO. So you don’t want to be a slave so do it anyway.” It’s become easier and easier for me to overrule my amygdala and at the end my amygdala is happy too because I’m like a parent who looks under the bed and in the closet and says “see there’s no monsters there”.
    It works over time. The amygdala slowly learns it doesn’t need to be so chicken and becomes more of a team player.

    Like

  2. rinki · November 16, 2012

    well said

    Like

  3. Ray · November 13, 2011

    this was extremely helpful. youve done good by posting this 🙂

    Like

  4. Amy R. · July 14, 2011

    I just came across this article. I love your insight. I’ve been dealing with some (self-diagnosed) mental issues as of late- which I’ve pinned down as what I term, an “overactive amygdala”. What you’ve written here just makes sense to me and gives me some hope as to how I can find my way back to peace of mind. Thank you.

    Like

    • CJ · July 14, 2011

      I’m happy if my words have helped you feel hopeful, Amy. Best of luck finding your path. And thank you for the comment.

      Like

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