So it is Friday afternoon. You are in the store, shopping groceries for the weekend. You are in a great mood. A song that you haven't heard in years starts echoing out from the supermarket speakers. And within five seconds you start feeling hurt, sad and depressed. You try to fight it, to wash it off, but to no avail. The feeling weighs you down like a damp cloth, and doesn't start going away until half an hour later. What happened? If you are good at introspection you will soon realize what it was. Maybe you associate the song with a devastating breakup of a long relationship. Or maybe you'll never find out what caused your angst and depression that Friday afternoon. But after reading this blog post you will know a bit more about the small part of your brain that causes such situations: the amygdala.
When writing my upcoming book on happiness, after going deeper and deeper, I finally wound up researching the anatomy of the human brain and how it relates to different psychological models such as the rider and the elephant or Freud's id, ego and superego. When doing this research I learned something that over the months has proven to be among the most valuable things I've learned in 2016. This piece of knowledge is simply understanding that the amygdala exists, and how it functions. Being aware of the amygdala's effect on me has made a huge impact in my life.
The amygdala is a part of our brain that stores and recalls emotional memories. Or actually, it is two parts of our brain. There is a left and a right amygdala. Researchers have tried stimulating the right amygdala with electricity, whereby the test subjects experienced fear, anxiety or sadness. By stimulating the left amygdala, the test subjects could instead be made to feel feel pleasant emotions like happiness.
The amygdala triggers pleasant or unpleasant emotions in response to certain stimuli. A stimulus can be something we see or hear, or feel. Anything that comes in via the senses. When we experience something deeply distressing, the amygdala stores an association with whatever stimuli we experienced in connection with that distressing situation. And the other way around of course for pleasant experiences. The stronger the emotion we feel about something, the stronger the emotional memory that will be stored in the amygdala. Then when we experience the same stimuli later, the amygdala triggers the emotion again.
So if you experience deeply unpleasant feelings during a breakup, the amygdala will spin into action. "Hey, that's some strong negative emotions right there. Let me just take note about everything in your surroundings right now, and make sure that the next time you encounter these things you will experience the same strong emotions. So that you learn to avoid these surroundings." So that song that was on the radio, the room you were in when you got the breakup phone call, the food you were eating at the time – all of them might trigger distress in the future.
You might have heard of PTSD – Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. The classic example is a war veteran whose whole world crumbles when he hears a loud bang years later. Another example of the amygdala at work.
Yet more interesting, the amygdala, likely being an old part of our brain, has a faster and more direct pathway to the senses than our more modern, thinking, frontal part of the brain. Thus the amygdala can make us all upset over something before our thinking mind have even had the chance to process the sensory input. This is why you can become angry and upset with something you are totally fine with on a rational level, just because the amygdala is acting all childish.
The amygdala only stores connections between stimuli and emotions, and it seems to work completely independently of the rest of our memory, which can store more than just emotions. This leads to the consequence that we sometimes can have a strong emotional reaction to something, a song, a person, a smell, without even remembering why. The actual memory is gone. But the imprint is still there in the amygdala. I think a lot of psychological illness is due to old imprints in the amygdala, and the reason some kinds of psychotherapy might work, is because it can help us rediscover memories which explain these amygdala imprints. When you realize this connection you can become more relaxed towards the emotions.
To me it has made a great difference in day to day life to simply know about and acknowledge the amygdala. It makes me able to instantly recognize whenever I am having a sudden emotion due to the amygdala, and this awareness in itself greatly helps me downplay the emotion. I can let my rational mind think through whether it is useful for me to be having this emotional reaction. And if it is not, I can wait for the emotion to die down without getting lost in it. Before I was aware of the amygdala, and the fact that it often triggers irrational emotions, I often got lost in them and amplified them by spinning up thought loops and doomsday scenarios. I simply didn't understand where the emotions came from, so I always took them very seriously.
So get to know your amygdala. The next time you feel overtaken by an emotion – ask yourself if it is due to an old imprint in the amygdala, or caused by something else. If you think it is caused by an old imprint in the amygdala, that understanding in itself can make it easier to dismiss the emotion. In the long run this makes for great self-therapy.