So I rock up to my barista and order my large cap, and toast with a tiny bit of vegemite. The coffee here is perfect, the service outstanding, and as I glance at my watch, I don’t know whether to sigh or smirk about being on time for my meeting. I choose to sigh happily and move out of everyone’s way.
At about the 8-minute mark, hipster-suity-groover guy rocks up and orders his coffee and same toast as me. Yes, that’s right. You can see where this is going. My happy barista man calls my name – ‘Someone’s toast is ready!’ I turn to grab my things, move back toward the counter – and before Hipster-Suity Guy’s coffee is even ready, he casually reaches over AND GRABS MY TOAST. Seconds later – wait, I’m not finished shouting: SECONDS LATER, HE HAS HIS COFFEE, THEN HE’S GONE!!!!
To know me is to concede that on a good day, parts of my nature are loveable, but today you’re pretty sure how shit is going to go down. But what if I surprise you? That’s right: things have changed and we are now familiar with the Amygdala Impact.
No matter our individual, or even collective thoughts on how we’ve evolved, we can count on the amygdala to keep us in touch with our Inner Primitive. Or as I affectionately think of him: my Inner Cyberdyne Systems series T-800 Model 101 Amygdala Terminator. The T-800 Amygdala controls the fight or flight instinct, scanning the environment for risk and danger five times a second – that’s right, FIVE TIMES A SECOND – and [analysing it through the super-high tech, military-grade, optical-screen of death] generates cortisol and adrenalin as required. Saving our lives since the Dawn of Man, the amygdala is a compact yet superior survival system, responsible for getting us out of the way of woolly mammoths, errant (or malicious) spear throwers and alerting us to problems that might affect our remaining with the clan. (Because that used to be a Thing.)
Crucial to the continuation of the species, it is one of the strongest drivers in our physical makeup. It is instinct. It’s why we’re here today. And it has this habit of overriding everything.
Now, back to today. It’s February 2017, and waiting for hipster-suity-groover guy’s toast, I have to tell you I don’t see many woolly mammoths about. Unless I’m particularly careless or stupid, or (thanks Pauline) consume too much sugar, there is no immediate threat to my survival past morning tea. I live in a modern family and haven’t sufficiently upset them or any members of my extended family to the point where my position in the clan is at stake. Overall my chances of continuation are pretty good. So. Why? Why the tightness in the chest? What the rush of heat? Why am I ready to go White Crane on hipster-suite-groover guy?
While our pre-frontal cortex is taking all this in, taking it’s time at a rate of 300 million Thinking Bits per second (hmm. What just happened?), our T-800 Amygdala has sorted shit out in a mere 20 million Outraged Symbol Bits (&%$@#**!@#$ etc), and stands up and shouts,
- THAT WAS MY BREAKFAST!
- I AM STARVING!
- AND LYN WILL BEAT ME TO THE MEETING!
New Bron is now equipped with means to have a go at muffling the T-800 Amygdala. She clamps a hand over the speaker system. Smiles for the lookers-on. ‘Nothing to see here’, her smile says. She hisses at the T-800 Amygdala to go into standby mode for a minute, and proceeds to consult the pre-frontal cortex, posing the T-800 Amygdala’s responses as questions, and looking for positive directions in which to re-think things:
- Yes. That was my breakfast. But perhaps hipster-suity-groover works for Medicins-Sans-Frontiers and he had to rush to the airport. You could have just saved lives!
- Your survival is not contingent on the turkish toast. You’ll probably make it to morning tea. Except you’ll end up with hipster-suity-groover’s toast, so…
- Look, I really don’t have an answer to this one, you’re incredibly childish, so…you’re on your own. (Ok, I deserve that one.)
The trick is to remember that you have to work pretty hard to overcome your amygdala’s response. With practise you can. Try it this way:
Identify and label your physical response. (Tightness in the chest, nausea; the name of any karate poses you assume.)
Trace these physical responses back to what you are thinking. (Injustice, starvation, going one-up at work.)
Now: involve your pre-frontal thinking man/woman by asking questions. And think in terms of the positive.
With thanks to Sandra Wood for making a difference.