Research on how the brain works also explains what happens when we encounter something that sets off our machinery and gets us activated so that we go into full battle alert, defending ourselves and/or attacking others. This research explains why, even after we’ve started becoming more mindful, we’re bound to become activated from time to time and how to use parenting ourselves to calm ourselves down.
It’s often a highly dramatic state when we’re activated, but although we feel very intensely, the emotions we’re experiencing so intensely are emotions that are catalyzed by our default programming. In this state, our machinery immediately goes to our Organizing Principles—those old beliefs about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. This process of past-based thinking has the effect of causing our future to look just like our past.
The verb activated describes exactly what happens in the brain at such moments. As you know, the amygdala is the part of the brain related to emotion, fear, memory, and aggression, and it responds to what we perceive as threats. According to pediatric neurologist Andrew Curran, research on the brain has demonstrated that the physiological process that occurs when we get activated is that the amygdala receives input via neurochemicals from a system of nerve cells called the reticular activating system (RAS), which goes up through our brain from our spinal cord and governs our state of arousal ranging from sleeping to being highly activated. Simultaneously, the amygdala also responds to our body’s release of adrenaline, a stress hormone that stimulates our “fight or flight” response and other emotions catalyzed by situations we perceive as threats. “The more excited you are, the more aroused your RAS is, and the higher the level of excitation of your amygdala,” Curran explains. “In this state there is often very little conscious mind being used.”
This information has helped me understand why, even after years of work to transform myself, there are times when I still continue to act mindlessly when I become activated. I may become so activated—so un-present, so not-in-the-moment—that I can’t hear what another person is really saying. Instead, I hear only what my “listening” tells me he or she is saying, based on my programmed beliefs about what I expect to hear.
Curran explains that the neurochemistry of the amygdala’s activation is the basis behind the strategy of “Time Out” with children, calming them down before talking to them about changing their behavior. This same neurochemistry, and consequently, the same strategy, applies to us as adults. “Going toe-to-toe with any individual who has already lost it is only going to wind the situation up further,” comments Curran. “Back off, take your time, and calmly contain the situation. Then you may start to get some results.”
An excerpt from my recent book, Your Mind Is What Your Brain Does for a Living, now available at Amazon.
- 1 Jan, 2015
- Posted by Steve Fogel
- 0 Comments