I was recently doing some research on the work of the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex of the brain, specifically looking at scientists' observations of the threat/reward impulse and what some call the "Amygdala Hijack." Fascinating dinner conversation, I can assure you. As scientists observe the brain's activity during different scenarios, they have noticed several consistent patterns:
- Your prefrontal cortex is where logic and reasoning happen.
- The prefrontal cortex is a small portion of your brain.
- Relatively speaking, if the prefrontal cortex was capable of holding 1 square foot of information, the rest of your brain - where subconscious thought and processes occur, apart from our awareness - would hold a Milky Way Galaxy amount of information.
- When you take in stimuli (sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, odors), its first stop in the brain is the thalamus. If the thalamus perceives the stimuli as intense it bypasses the rational prefrontal cortex and sends that stimuli straight to your limbic system (where you amygdala resides).
- The amygdala regulates what scientists call the freeze, fight or flight impulses to threatening or exciting new stimuli. Basically, it is survival mode, and it floods the brain with electro-chemicals that take effect immediately. Heightening our senses with a readiness for action to preserve ourselves.
Here's the deal, the amygdala gets hijacked, and rightfully so, when someone cuts us off in traffic and we are afraid we are going to crash, when we slip near the edge of a cliff and nearly fall, etc. Basically when our lives are at risk. Here's the deeper deal, the limbic system is also subconsciously creating physical reactions in us for social survival too. It reacts strongly when things like: our status, our ability to predict the future, our sense of being in control, our ability to feel relationally close to others, or our sense of fairness are threatened. Before we can ever have a rational thought about these things, our brain has established pathways for classifying something as good or bad in relation to these areas.
This is fascinating to me. Science is great! Observing the world around us and even our own bodies and functioning is worthwhile, however, observation of what has been created alone, cannot bring full understanding - in fact it can lead us astray unless we seek the wisdom of the creator to temper it with.
1. Science observes: Status is important to people's happiness. If the brain perceives that social status is being threatened, it reacts strongly. If the brain perceives an increase in social status, being elevated above others, this is desirable. Brain scientist's answer: Elevate yourself. Seek ways to minimize the threats to your status and maximize the opportunities to get ahead of others.
The Bible says: Status belongs to God alone. We are to reject impulses to elevate ourselves and rather humble ourselves and allow God to exalt us in due time as He sees fit. (James 4:10, Psalm 145:3, Philippians 2:3)
2. Science says: Knowing the future and living in certainty brings feelings of comfort and security (increases in dopamine). Brain scientist's answer: Proactively organize your life to reduce uncertainty, plan, plan, plan.
The Bible says: The future belongs to God alone. He alone knows what it holds and He alone is the source of lasting comfort and security. We are to trust him and release our claims to knowing the future. (James 4:13-17, 2 Corinthians 1:3-5)
3. Science observes: Having choices and a sense of control is vital to mental health.
The Bible says: Releasing control and choosing God's will is vital to spiritual health. The most important choice is choosing God and that choice leads to relinquishing control, not grasping on to it. (Joshua 24:15, Romans 12:2, 1 Peter 4:1-2, 1 John 2:17)
4. Science observes: Being in relationship with other people and having safety in those relationships frees you to think freely.
The Bible says: Offer your friendship to those who may have nothing to give you in return. Relationships are important and safety in relationships is good, but they aren't all about what's in it for us. (Ephesians 5:21, Romans 12:13-16)
5. Science observes: Do what you can to pursue fairness in your world to reduce your feelings of threat.
The Bible says: Life isn't fair because sin is a part of our world. We need not feel threatened by a lack of fairness because we serve a just God who will right wrongs perfectly in time. We pursue justice, not to make our own path easier or straighter, but to aid those who cannot help themselves. We do not demand fairness for ourselves because we know that if we were treated fairly, ultimately we deserve death. (Deuteronomy 32:4, Romans 12:17-21)
At the end of the day, we are not bound to the inevitable chemical reactions of our brains. 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 NIV says, "The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgement. 'For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?' But we have the mind of Christ." One of the ways scientists have observed to avoid the long lasting effects of a hijacked amygdala is to reframe your reality and experience. As Christians - God has given us a frame for our worldview with which to talk ourselves off the ledges of life. It is given in His Word. Let's fill our minds with the truth of scripture and in doing so re-train our brains to perceive what true threats and rewards really are. Then we will be ready to take risks, look outside ourselves for fulfillment, sacrifice freely, and basically have a life that counts for something, not just a life that is comfortable.
That's all I have to say about that.