The Amygdala & Emotions
The amygdala triggers your emotions faster than your conscious awareness. The unique “speed dial circuits” of the two almond sized nuclei within your brain are the first to react to emotionally significant events. These organs protect you from harm by interpreting subconscious hints of danger to trigger lightning fast responses.
The amazing pattern recognition competence of these organs provides clear evidence of the theme of this website that the mind does not compute, but senses patterns. These organs detect and respond to subliminal signals of danger, or of obstructions to one's goals. In coordination with the insulae, they also respond with alacrity to negative emotions like grief, guilt, envy, or shame.
The amygdalae react to negative events in many ways, including activation of your sympathetic nervous system. The results cause you gut wrenching turmoil. While it takes around 300 milliseconds for you to become aware of a disturbing event, the amygdalae react to it within 20 milliseconds! Sadly, the knee-jerk responses of these organs cause you to overreact to the world around you. Their momentary mischief in the morning can subconsciously trouble you the whole day. An awareness of the mechanism can enable you to effectively still their ill effects and recover your peace of mind.
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During the early beginnings of life, nature developed the amygdalae as a defense response mechanism for animals. Recognizing danger patterns, the organs enabled animals to fight, freeze, or escape. As essential as the vertebrae, these organs protected fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals from harm. Later, the evolutionary process evolved more sophisticated emotions to support herd life among animals. These social emotions were triggered from the insula, another organ in the limbic system.
Over aeons, the nervous system had also assembled regions, which could sense many patterns in the environment, including odor, sound, color, taste and touch. Other regions in the brain identified internally felt patterns, including pain, cool or warm temperature and mechanical stress. The insulae linked social emotions to a variety of felt sensations. These combinatorial patterns were stored in the neural network.
Painful experiences in life were always accompanied by patterns of internal and external sensory inputs. The amygdalae assembled combinatorial memories of such pain related patterns. Later, recognition of those patterns caused the organs to react in anticipation of pain. Many of these memories were acquired painfully through personal experience. Others were passed down through generations. The reactions of the amygdalae on recognition of such patterns were “quick and dirty.” Their responses bypassed the deeper wisdom of more advanced brain regions. They triggered knee-jerk outputs – like a bull charging a red rag. The rag is not a threat, but merely resembles one.
The amygdala is a bundled network of neurons, about one inch in length, in the limbic system, deep within the brain. Specific regions within it receive sensory inputs and other regions trigger control responses. The lateral amygdala receives inputs from sight, sound, touch, taste and pain systems. The medial nucleus receives inputs from the olfactory system.
Deciding on the emotional significance of received sensory inputs, the central nucleus of the organ sends impulses to the brainstem, triggering (typically jumpy) avoidance behavior. Impulses sent by it to the hypothalamus activate the sympathetic nervous system, raising blood pressure and heart beats. Impulses sent to the facial nerves generate varied expressions, including anger, fear and disgust. Norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine released from the amygdalae raise or lower the interactivity of critical networks, heightening the intensity of fight, flight or freeze responses.
While it is geared to cause you sudden tension, the amygdalae are anatomically considered to be a part of the basal ganglia (BG), a gray bundle of neurons, which enable you to consciously control your actions and thoughts. The dominance of BG grants you the power to still the knee jerk reactions of the amygdalae.
Responses To Social Emotions
In primeval animals, it was the amygdalae, which initiated primitive anger and fear. Later, with the arrival of herd living, more subtle social emotions emerged. The insulae, organs in the limbic system, triggered these emotions.
The insulae linked such emotions to the experiences of sensations, including sharp pain, burning pain, cool or warm temperature, itching, muscle contraction, muscle burn because of lactic acid, joint movements, soft touch, mechanical stress, tickling, flushing, hunger and thirst.
The insulae trigger varied emotion signals, each specifically accompanied by pleasant, or unpleasant bodily sensations – the warmth of love, or the pain of guilt. It was Antonio Damasio, who suggested that it was the insulae, which link bodily sensations to emotions. Eisenberger's research at UCLA reports a typical link of emotions to sensations. Neural pain circuits were found to be activated, when a person suffers social rejection.
The pain of rejection defers from the pain of a pinprick. Pain is known to have two pathways. One carries the pain sensation. Signals in the other carry a feeling of “hurt,” which is reported to be more disagreeable. Such negative sensation signals from the insulae reach the amygdalae. The organ registers memories of the painful sensations related to social emotions. They react to the felt feelings of hate, disgust, shame, guilt, envy, jealousy, sadness and despair.
The Subtlety Of Its Primitive Responses
The amygdalae recognize subtle patterns. Recent Harvard research reported the reactions of the organ, when subjects looked at photos of angry and fearful faces. The organ can identify anger, or fear in a face. It can also determine the threat level of an angry, or fearful face. You are not under threat, when an angry person glares at somebody else. But, if he glares at you, your amygdala fires instantly! You are not in danger, if a person looks with fear at you.
But if the fearful face looks elsewhere, there is danger nearby. Your amygdala responds again. Not only does the organ identify fear and anger in a face, it is also sensitive to the threat implied by gaze directions! But, the organs were responding to photos. Higher brain regions know that a photo cannot harm you. The amygdalae are primitive in their assessments.
The Organ Never Forgets
The amygdalae have been noted to assist in the memory formation of emotional events. In experiments on caged rats, the animals receive painful footshocks, accompanied by specific sounds. Later, the sounds alone are observed to induce stresses in the animal. The sound signals were noted to generate stronger responses in the input synapses of the amygdalae. The neural junctions receiving the signals increased intracellular calcium, leading to protein synthesis. The sound to pain relationship was retained in memory as long-term potentiation (LTP), a persisting potential, causing the amygdalae to react more readily to signs of danger.
LTP has serious implications. Over the years, the amygdalae remember the things you felt, saw and heard, each time you had a painful experience. Subliminal hints of such stressful events (even photos!) will cause the organs set off attack, or escape routines. Those motor routines trigger evasive actions or internal turmoil. Before you know it, you will become angry, or try to avoid the situation. If you cannot solve the issue, angry, defensive, or fearful internal voices will nag you. The amygdalae will overwhelm you with responses to real and imaginary threats for a lifetime, unless you consciously take control of their knee jerk responses.
Mirror neurons are believed to create empathy by assisting you to internally experience the actions and emotions of people. Being sensitive to incoming sensory patterns, the amygdalae are quick to recognize the presence of negative emotions in others. In the process, these organs empower social interactions. If the amygdalae are damaged, animals fail to react to threatening situations with emotions or avoidance behaviors. A damaged amygdala is associated with the condition of autism, or social-blindness.
The Attention Mechanism
On recognizing emotionally significant events, the amygdalae trigger impulses, which interrupt your normal routines. Your prefrontal regions consciously control your mind through impulses sent to the basal
ganglia (BG). The BG interprets these messages and triggers motor programs setting off sequences of actions and thought processes. Anne Graybiel discovered that the BG is also able to manage your tasks automatically by storing memories of consciously controlled tasks. In the end, the BG subconsciously manages all your grunt work, while at the top level, you think about where to have lunch.
The autopilot of an airliner can routinely manage by itself. It can also be manually controlled. Or, built in emergency procedures can take over its control. So also, the BG. You can raise your hand. You can do it without thinking. If your hand touches a hot plate, your motor systems will raise it for you. If you see a snake in the garage, the basolateral amygdala will instruct the BG to shift the attention of your mind from your intention to mow the lawn.
Taming The Organ
You can capture control back from the turmoil created by the amygdala. The ancient organ responds to internal and external danger signals. But, these are not life threatening dangers in the modern world. You do not have to run for your life, or fight a tiger. It is only a motorist, who swerved in front of you. Sadly, the amygdala pulls the emergency lever. Road rage, or accidents could follow its visceral reactions.
But, the amygdala is somewhat open to reason. Its urgent reaction to a snake will be instantly stilled if you find that it is only a garden hose. The mind control tips in this website suggest a few routines to quiet the amygdala. The first of these is an acceptance by the organ of the inevitability of the problems you face. Problems appear awful only when their implications are unknown. When you evaluate them and face them, the amygdala will not react unreasonably. There are also ways to quiet visceral reactions. Relaxation exercises can also still signals sent to the amygdala by tightened muscles.
The prefrontal regions have powerful inhibitory circuits to BG to “switch behavior” back to normal. Impulses from BG can inhibit the amygdala. Intuition works by inhibiting irrelevant neural activity. An animal either drinks, or it chews grass. It can choose. The choice inhibits irrelevant systems, and activates the motor systems, which you focus on. If you decide to count up to ten, your anger will reduce. You will become more tactful towards your opponent. An awareness of the physical symptoms accompanying emotions can also instantly disconnect the messages to the amygdala. This website presents you with ways to still negative emotions. But, all these require a little practice.
The Anger Emotion
While you may forget a compliment, your amygdala will never forget a slight. When the organ becomes oversensitive to real or imagined stress points, anger becomes a problem. Anger causes some people to subconsciously resent authority, or a cruel fate. Anger makes them impatient with mistakes and errors, or contemptuous of people. In positions of power, they become harsh, or patronizing and condescending. Hidden anger often covertly induces self failure. Everywhere, it is the amygdala which impels them on. With effective mind control, they will stop seething against the inevitable thorns and barbs of fate and accept life as it is, with all its mindless potholes.
The Fear Emotion
A rat in a cage cannot avoid getting a footshock. When it senses signals, which imply the potential for pain, the amygdala triggers freeze or flight behavior. Fear tends to paralyze. Every vista appears dangerous and threatening. You can only do one of three things, when you face a threat. Do something about it, avoid it, or live with it. Creative management requires alertness, not fear. Pangs of fear can be stilled through self awareness and a few mind control practices. When fear is stilled, the awareness of danger will still be present. But the ability to take calculated risks and make a project successful will come to the forefront. Common sense appears, when fear is stilled.
The Grief Emotion
Grief is a social emotion, which triggers pain. When life deals you a severe blow, it is but natural to feel sadness and to dwell on the images of “what might have been.” All such images trigger evasive action by the amygdala, which desperately seeks an impossible escape from the sense of loss. A reasonable period of grief is needed for a person to come to terms with traumatic changes in life. Awareness can still the constant tendency to dwell on thoughts of escape from the inevitable. It is necessary to gradually forget the past and to plan for a new future. As grief subsides, common sense will take over, motivating the mind to get on with life.
Envy and Jealousy
A social comparison drive within us constantly compares us with others. It is an unfortunate, but relentless process. The insulae trigger pain with every failure to compete. A neighbor's shiny new car can be a painful reminder of overdue mortgage payments. A bright new recruit to the office may be seen as a threat to the chances of promotion. Envy is triggered by failure and jealousy, by the prospect of failure. Both emotions cause pain. The amygdala triggers urgent but fruitless searches to avoid the pain. Failure leads to anger and negative behavior. An acceptance of one's own shortcomings can still these debilitating emotions. When your own failures are accepted, common sense can motivate you to avoid those failures in future, or to go out and seek new opportunities.
This page was last updated on 30-Dec-2013
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