Houston, we have a problem…

(…but it doesn’t have to be). The amygdala is considered by many to be the root of many of our anxiety and stress problems, and that’s true. That’s because this very small, “older” almond-shaped part of our central processing units was grand when it came time to run away from a predator or fight off a competing tribal member. Today, the “modern amygdala” can contribute to a world of pain. But it’s more complicated than that–your amygdala can be tamed.


Salience Network: Reacting to Bad News–and Good. According to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, as we evolved as a species, we grew to respond to stimuli in some fairly simple decision trees: if something is a threat, it should be avoided. If you see food, approach it. Is it a similar species or group, attach to it.  This so-called “salience network” reacts to positive and negative impetuses. These “executive functions” are located in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), and constitute the “newer” part of the evolved brain–right behind and above your forehead; it shapes your actions, words, and thoughts. This part of the brain becomes sensitized to good and bad inputs–if you’re regularly subjected to “bad experiences,” such as a soldier on the battlefield, it might train your brain to survive, but it can also keep you “stuck” in alert mode. The good news is that this part of your brain (known as the cingulate cortex) can become sensitized to good experiences, as well. As Hanson explains, this part of your brain helps keep you on track and look for opportunities to take in the good (e.g., gratitude for a nice day, physical well being, understanding that you may have a few aches and pains, but all in all, everything’s in order).

People typically fall into one of three groups:

  1. Some people react equally strongly to positive and negative stimuli
  2. Others have an amygdala that reacts more strongly to negative simuli than positive
  3. Some people’s amygdala reacts more to positive stimuli than to negative.

This last group #3–people with a joyful amygdala–are more focused on “promoting the good than on preventing the bad.” These people tend to be happier, enjoy deeper, positive emotions relative to people in groups #1 and #2. According to Hanson, the amygdala evolved the capacity for joy and positivity because it

“quickly becomes sensitized to negative experiences through vicious circles involving the stress hormone cortisol. This helped our ancestors survive in tough conditions by highlighting the threats around them, making their brains like velcro for the bad. But in good conditions, whether in the jungle millions of years ago or in the lives of most people today, it would be adaptive for survival to sensitize the amygdala to positive experiences…Positive experiences, especially if they have a sense of freshness about them, increase the elease of the neurotransmitter dopamine. While you are taking in the good [experiences], you typically prolong dopamine inputs to your amygdala.These sustained releases of dopamine make it react more intensely to good facts and experiences, with associated signals to your hippocampus saying essentially, ‘This is a keeper, remember this one.'”

Approach “Green Mode” Orientation: Amygdala as Good Cop. The amygdala, as Hanson posits, is the “…hub of the salience network. Your amygdala reacts to both bad news and good news. Less amygdala reactivity to the bad would help you feel less anxious or angry, but it would not by itself make you more happy.” For the brain to retain the positive, it needs what Wil Cunningham of Ohio State University has called ‘a joyful amygdala’  According to Cunningham the amygdala is active when people are afraid, but it is also activated in response to pleasant photographs and happy faces. It seems that it’s more complicated than simply stating that the amygdala is responsible for “feeling bad.” As Cunningham puts it,  scientists first approached studying the brain expecting that specific components of the brain were responsible for specific emotions. But it’s more complicated than that. “It’s a great emotion to study because it’s very important, evolutionarily, and we know a lot about fear in animals,” states Cunningham in this piece by psychologicalscience.org. Although most studies of fear conclude that the amygdala is active during times of fear, it doesn’t mean that “every spark of activity in the amygdala means the person is afraid. Instead, the amygdala seems to be doing something more subtle: processing events that are related to what a person cares about at the moment.”

“The neural circuits our ancestors used for raw survival light up today when we’re worried about money, feeling pressured about a project at work, or hurt by a frown across a dinner table.”

Reactive “Red” Mode: Amygdala as Bad Cop. The amygdala also plays the role that it is best known for: the fight or flight mechanism. In fact, there are multiple neural systems are constantly scanning to determine whether anything is wrong, that our core needs of safety, satisfaction, and connectedness are being met. Typically, people move into and out of various modes of emotional feeling–anxious, happy, discomfort, safety. But sometimes, the amygdala shifts into high gear–even when there’s no specific or immediate threat, or, as Hanson puts it, when the amygdala is in the “red zone”:

In the red zone, the amygdala sends an alarm both to your hypothalamus to release stress hormones and to your sympathetic nervous system for the hyper-arousal of leeing or fighting. (If there’s a history of trauma, the amygdala could instead trigger extreme parasympathetic activation to initiate…freezing, numbing, or dissocation.) The neural circuits our ancestors used for raw survival light up today when we’re worried about money, feeling pressured about a project at work, or hurt by a frown across a dinner table.

The reactive mode of the amygdala isn’t concerned with whether the threat is real or imagined. If one’s state of agitation is extreme, the reactive mode can take over, assuming that there are urgent demands that need to take priority above all else–resources are channeled for survival, while “maintenance systems” such as immune strength are put “on hold.” The adrenal gland kicks in and the “fight or flight” hormone cortisol is released through the blood and “fear, frustration, and heartache color the mind. At the same time, the negativity bias [of the brain] is heightening the storage of the negative experience” in your memory storage systems.

Stuck on Red: The Negative Feedback Loop. Most of the time, we humans go through many cycles of emotion throughout the course of the day. And most of the time, we’re brought back from “red” zone to “green” through our bodies’ natural predisposition to be in balance, or “responsive” mode. But sometimes, we humans get stuck in red mode and become trapped in what I call a “negative feedback loop” wherein the amygdala feeds a perpetual “alert state” regardless of whether we’re actually being threatened. Hanson explains it well:

Negative Feedback LoopThe natural, biologically based rhythm is for animals, including us, to spend most of their time in the (non-fearful) responsive mode. In the background, the negativity bias is operating, creating an inclination toward occasional reactive (mode) bursts. These bursts are supposed to end quickly…The reactive mode is a departure from teh responsive baseline, and we’re designed by evolution to return to this baseline as soon as possible. Just entering the red zone triggers neurochemical processes (involving natural opioids, nitric oxide, and other chemicals) designed to bring you home to green, followed by a nice long recovery…Even though reactive experience feel bad, as long as they follow the evolutionary blueprint–infrequent, brief, and usually moderate–they will likely have few lasting consequences.

Unfortunately, much of modern life violates this ancient design. While most people are no longer exposed to the intense pressures of predation, starvation, and lethal conflict, we do commonly face ongoing mild to moderate stressors, such as doing multiple things at once, processing dense incoming streams of information and stimulation, racing from here to there, working long hours, and rapidly shifting gears–with little time for responsive recovery between them. In the wild, regular exercise helped clear stress-based cortisol out of the body, but our sedentary lifestyles allows cortisol to keep circulating” which can lead to a vicious negative feedback loop wherein the ancient brain puts the body on alert to stressors that the modern brain cannot do anything about, which causes more stress, and feeds the amygdala even more.  This is the bad news, indeed, as Hanson explains:

“All this puts the brain on high alert. Its ancient reptile, mammal, primate, and Stone Age circuits keep flashing red: Something’s wrong, watch! Due to [the brain’s survival mechanism] the negativity bias, these experiences are swifty encoded in neural structure. And because of our unique human ability to sustain states of mind unrelated to our immediate environment, internalized psychological factors…can keep you feeling stressed long after a challenge has passed.”

Another way to put this is that if you are already stressed–for whatever reason–as a common experience, this feeds the red alert mode. Let’s say that you’re predisposed toward anxiety or some kind of neurosis (e.g., hypochondria–dread fear of health problems). Or say you have extreme social anxiety or genetic predisposition toward depression. Or say you don’t necessarily have a negative predisposition for emotional disorders, but you’ve been in a battle zone for far too many months, and you’ve done nothing but “feed negative inputs” into your brain that might have helped you on the battlefield, but not so much in the civilian world. All of this adds up to one thing: you’re in a category that’s ripe for being stuck in the “red zone” negative feedback loop. As a result

“Over time, [reactive experiences] are risk factors for depression and other mental issues. Many psychological disorders involve reactive extremes…For example, generalized anxiety, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD_, dissociative disorder, social anxiety, and panic are all related [to the brain’s ancient survival mechanism]”

ancient brain wheelsRetrain Your Brain.  In his book Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World, Oxford University clinical psychologist Mark Williams talks about the brain and body benefits of mindfulness meditation, a cognitive behavioral therapy that can be as effective as drugs at staving off recurring bouts of depression. In fact, Williams talks about how US Marines are now doing meditation at the base in Quantico, VA.

In his book, Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson prescribes many ways to “take in the good” and “rewire your brain” so that it mindfully focuses on, and deeply internalizes the positive experiences available to everyone.

Meditation. Mindfulness. Awareness of what’s happening in our brains. All of these things can help mitigate  and build resilience against the dreaded “negative feedback loop” that societal worries, inputs, and trauma conspire with  our ancient brain’s survival mechanisms help make possible. For more, see the the science behind the the ancient brain’s conflict with the modern brain and our resources listings.

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness Team

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