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Human Behavior - The Amygdala Hijack

Updated: May 3

Picking up from my previous blogs about ‘Why we do, what we do?’ and 'Free Will', lets look into the science behind behavior modulation. The underlying mechanisms that are working in the background that are involved in transforming a thought into an action.

Typically any sensory information is routed through our cortex for processing before it reaches the amygdala to take appropriate actions. However in some instances our brain takes a shortcut, bypassing the cortex and goes directly to the amygdala when the situation demands and it generates quicker responses, but with less accuracy. It preferentially responds to fear-evoking stimuli, even stimuli so fleeting as to be below conscious detection.

The decision before a voluntary action is an emotive decision, which is generated in the emotional system, that is driven by our amygdala that governs our emotions. It can be recognized as an impulse and then leads to a conscious decision in a creation process, which results in our coherent world view.

This system might be less accurate but super important nevertheless, when we need to behave and rely upon our instincts. If we are being chased by a tiger, some lunatic wielding a machete or someone coming right at us on a freeway, we don’t wanna ponder and use rationality to decide what we should do. Our Amygdala kicks in and either we fight, run, ram the breaks or swerve. Unfortunately, this has pretty much become our default state and hence we react more than we respond. The downside to this lack of accuracy is, the amygdala can mistakenly decide it’s seeing a gun before the visual cortex can report that it’s actually a mobile or get triggered by what someone said or did before taking a step back to comprehend the situation and responding appropriately.

It has been found the amygdala in animals can respond to a perception

in as little as twelve thousands of a second.

If we are strictly governed by our amygdala then where does our ability of impulse control stand? We often form the intent to act in certain ways. But, we don’t always follow through with the action. If we look at some of the morally reprehensible acts, not everyone who has thoughts of raping or killing follow through with it. Which means they all are using some sort of self control and this only happens if done consciously. Just imagine what kind of a world it will be where intentions do not matter and will not have any significance or moral relevance. Intention behind an action should matter right.

So, the real question is how do we influence and construct our intent!!!

Similarly, we often want things but, we don’t always pursue what we want. For instance, we might tell ourselves that we will get up early and go for a run or do yoga, however when the time does come for us to wake up, our brain conjures up all kinds of excuses and reasons for not getting up, like our bed feels so cosy or its raining/snowing outside, better to start on Monday etc etc. So the intent and want might very well be there but it does not translate into an action.

This is where our frontal cortex comes into play. It is responsible for getting us to do the harder thing when the harder thing is the better/right thing to do. So this is what separates us from other animal forms. Our ability to reason, impulse control, empathize, imagine, will power and other executive functions. If we cannot harness any of these or at least try then we are no different to animals right. Our frontal cortex reins in our otherwise "animal" behavior, which means it can modulate our amygdala to some extent. This is one of the reasons why there are rules as to when someone should be allowed to vote, drink, drive etc. Our prefrontal cortex does not fully develop up until 25 years of age and hence the irrational behavior of teenagers.

The very fact that our prefrontal cortex takes almost 25 years to develop shows that

it is the least effected by genetics and most of it is environmental or epigenetic.

The idea is to use less of our lizard or reptilian brain (instinctual behaviour) and use the prefrontal cortex (rational behaviour) and bridging these two is the limbic system (emotional behaviour), which amygdala is part of and therein lies the challenge given the dominance of the reptilian brain and the limbic system, given its hold over us due to its evolutionary preponderance.

If we can exercise some sort of impulse and self control and regulate our actions, then there is clearly some room for Free Will or in other words ‘Responding’ rather than ‘Reacting’. One of the ways is in the decision making process itself. The very word 'Decision', which has its roots in 'caedere' in Latin which means ‘to cut’. So, to cut what is not needed or not good rather than having to select. All of this comes from our rational mind. So, to decide means to CUT and not SELECT. As long as there is a viable (available) option (more than one choice), the temptation is always there. As long as there is an option to sleep in, then getting up to do yoga or study or go for a run etc, then chances of procrastination is inevitable. The idea is to make a choice and cut the remaining choices off completely!! And all of these happen very much in our prefrontal cortex.

Now that may sound a little severe and limiting, but it’s not. It’s liberating. You see, having many choices is great; but at some point, if we’re going to get to where we want to go, and if we’re going to attain what we want to attain, then we need to make some decisions. Don’t view making a decision as a debilitating thing. It’s not actually “cutting you off,” as the root of the word may suggest. In fact, making a decision frees you from the shackles of endless choices so that you can get to where you want to go or do what you really want to do.

There are two contrasting cases of Phineas Gage and Charles Whitman, which are pretty interesting and worth looking into to help us in understanding the inter-connectedness

and influences of one brain system over the other.

When we consider all of these factors, it does make a case for some free will or rather ‘freedom in choice’. We could be presented with a set of choices that are predetermined and most of the time the choice we make does depend on our conditioning but if we can exercise some form of conscious thought process into the decision making, then I think we can to some extent override these natural triggers and forces. Anything that is driven by auto-pilot has zero free will but anything that happens in our awareness has some degree of free will and the ability to exercise that will obviously depend on our will power, intentions etc. So, we do have some freedom, the question is if we have the will to go with it?

Before a neuron can fire and goes off in our brain, it requires certain conditions and we definitely in no way control the conditions for when a neuron can fire. They solely depend on an already ongoing chain of events and processes and of course they also depend on outside stimuli, none of which we control. We truly don't control the processes that are occurring in our heads, yet these processes say everything about our experiences, thoughts and actions. What if we can somehow influence the conditions preceding the neuronal firing? Is that even possible? If it indeed is possible, what would that entail? That's coming up!


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