Here’s a thought: fear is more than just a thought. “The fabric of fear,” says Dr. Dan Baker, author of What Happy People Know, “has been woven into our brains, creating a neurological entity that has lasted as long as mankind.”
A few weeks ago, in To Be Happy, I talked about how the brain is hard-wired for the negative, for survival. But when you consider that two out of the three basic areas of the brain were manufactured for fear, you’ll understand that this is more than some simple wiring issues to overcome in a quest for happiness.
The brain stem, also often referred to as the reptilian brain, is the first part of the brain formed in the womb and was also the first part of the brain to evolve in animals, 100 million years ago. Says Baker, “The reptilian brain holds instinctual fears and is incapable of higher thought. It cannot process complex emotions, such as love. That’s why reptiles don’t make good pets. A lizard will never learn its name or love its owner.”
The second part of the brain to develop in the womb, the mammalian brain, houses the “amygdala”, pronounced ah-mig-duh-la, not ah-mig-dah-la. It comes from the Greek word for “almond”, as they are almond-shaped, the pair of them, residing on each side of your brain about where a straight line drawn from your eyeball and your ear would intersect.
“It’s a veritable haunted house of horror,” says Baker. “The amygdala isn’t as primordial as the brain stem; it does have some power to evaluate fears – though not much. It’s a primitive warehouse for everything that’s frightening.”
And it is not connected to consciousness, points out neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux on www.bigthink.com. For instance, a rat will respond fearfully to a cat, or any stimulus associated with a cat, so fear is innate and immediate, creating a negative bias on emotion.
The amygdalae are attached to action through our endocrine systems, producing cortisol and adrenaline in times of stress. Quite useful in days of yore when running for miles, or whacking someone upside the head, would either resolve your stressful situation or leave you dead. But for most stressful situations these days? Physical symptoms like an elevated heart rate, high blood pressure or butterflies in your stomach don’t really help in dealing with job or financial stress, or say a cancer diagnosis.
An interesting note about how the amygdalae store emotional memories is this: they’re vivid, not always the complete truth. Neuroscientist Ledoux says studies have been done of witnesses to big events, like the Columbia space shuttle disaster, and what a witness recalls immediately after changes a few months later, then changes again a couple of years later. “What we remember is not necessarily what we experience originally,” says Ledoux. “Accuracy changes over time. The fact that it was powerful does not.”
“Is there any good news about how are brains are made?” you may ask.
Well, yes. You wouldn’t be reading, understanding and striving to thrive at life if you didn’t have the third major part of the brain, the neocortex. The newer part of the cerebral cortex, where higher mental function happens, it has the power to overrule both the reptile and the almonds. Intellect, abstract reasoning and the storage of long-term memories happen here. Baker believes the neocortex is also the physical site of the human spirit. Residing above the two lower areas of the brain, the neocortex has the ability to assess persistent incoming fear messages, through the intellect, as well as spirit, for validity. “It has the amazing ability to say, ‘Nothing is wrong – calm down!’” says Baker. “These messages are our saving grace. Bursting forth from the neocortex, our crown of evolution, these messages of comfort and confidence are our ultimate reward for having evolved.”
Fear is powerful, but our amazing brains have grown pretty big and powerful too. Sometimes we’re too busy, or tired, or overwhelmed to listen to these calming messages, but knowing we’re capable of creating them – and improving that ability by strengthening our spirituality – is reassuring, isn’t it? Baker calls this the “oscillating dance of the spirit and the reptile. The spirit must lead. That is the key to happiness.”