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.

The Simple Path to Happiness

According to the NY Times article “But Will it Make You Happy?” research suggests that simplifying our lives and spending our money on experiences rather than objects will help increase our happiness. From the article:

New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses.

The article tells about Tammy Strobel, who, along with her husband, downsized into a 400-square-foot studio with only 100 personal items each. They live on Tammy’s $24,000-a-year income in Portland, Oregon, have no debt, and apparently they’ve never been happier. Tammy writes about her experiences on her blog, rowdykittens.com.

This is an interesting idea to me. For the past month or so I’ve been craving a smaller space. I’m feeling burdened by our 1400-square-foot home. I like the shade we get from the giant ash tree in our backyard, and I like being able to grow food in our garden, but it’s a lot to keep up with. Valuing our time with our kids over time with the lawnmower, we’ve hired someone to take care of the lawn. For the house, we have someone coming in to clean once a month, which gives me a deadline to pick up the clutter and gets the bathtub clean more often than I’d otherwise get to it. But I’d rather just have less to clean and less to mow (and water).

I know two families who are significantly downsizing for the sake of living a long-desired lifestyle. One family sold most of their possessions and moved with their two kids onto a sailboat. The other family are selling most of their stuff and moving with their two kids to Kotzebue, Alaska, near the Bering Strait. You can only get there by plane or by boat. I have yet another friend who is traveling around the world for a year with only what fits into her backpack. None of these specific paths appeals to me, but the downsizing really does. I’ve donated three VW Jetta-loads of stuff from our house already. It felt wonderful, but the stuff we have still feels like too much. Two years ago, we lived in an 850-square-foot apartment and were pretty happy. It didn’t take us long at all to up-size, but the downsizing seems to be more of a challenge.

What are your thoughts? Does downsizing lead to greater happiness, or does “stuff” keep you happy?