As you are coming to understand our amygdala is the root of our over reactions toward setbacks, comments, and even a weird look from a stranger. Even having a simple disagreement with someone can switch the amygdala to the fight-or-flight position. You enter into a discussion in which you expect the person to agree with you. Then when the person doesn’t, cortisol releases, causing an immediate shutting down of reasonable thinking and processing. Cortisol interrupts the prefrontal cortex as it tells your brain, “Your life is in danger; this is no time to be thinking!” So you raise your voice, yell, and take on aggressive body posture. Your whole body is reacting as if the other person is a threat to your life. This is why arguments rarely prove fruitful and is why discussing topics such as religion and politics is so dangerous. Never forget that no one wants to hear what you think unless you agree with them. So save your breath and your energy.
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Like a gladiator jumping over a wall into the middle of a battle, that uneducated, ancient part of your brain has the final say regarding what you need to do to survive. Simply trying to think your way out of a panic will not help. Once the amygdala releases those fight-or-flight hormones into your system, it is all systems go! Have you ever tried telling someone who was yelling to calm down? A lot of good that did, right?
How long does it take for your amygdala to have your head spinning? Less than a second. For my women readers of a certain age, if you have ever had hot flashes, you can verify that they seem to come out of nowhere, very quickly, without provocation. Actually, hot flashes are due to a thought that just triggered a fear or concern, and it happens even when you are sleeping. You never noticed it because even a small concern causes your amygdala to react. While these chemicals are in play, you will feel very justified as you yell or have a tantrum, but when they dissipate, you wonder, “Why did I react like that and get upset over something so trivial?” You did it because your brain thought your life was in danger, and in the blink of an eye, you reacted instinctively.
In a social context, people with similar fears and frustrations will feel validated as they join together in groups, gangs, or cults. When the dreaded “group mentality” kicks in, a dangerous momentum can take place.
Your brain likes to be in agreement with others because staying with the crowd thousands of years ago gave you protection. Have you noticed that when you have a disagreement with someone, each of you is in defense mode? Your brain reacts as though the physical you—and not just your opinion—are in danger!
In this context, people may even join gangs or other groups with which they have very little in common other than their outrage, yet that one common factor can result in them taking violent political positions or engaging in all out war. All of the violence in the world can be traced back to an amygdala that screams, “Kill or be killed!”
There are special neurons, which reside in various parts of our brain, called mirror neurons. They are there so we can learn to mimic others’ of actions and read their emotions. How they do this is when we watch other human do things, these mirror neurons fire exactly as if we were doing the same action. This is a big part of the reason we feel that we should behave the way others do in emotional moments. And this is exactly why we have mobs of people tearing up Baltimore. There is no reason or rationale at this point. They are in a frenzy in which their brains are telling them that to follow what the mob is doing will be better for their survival. It is why crowds trample people at the opening of holiday shopping. The behavior is completely instinctual. Only a very aware person can catch and step away for this kind of emotion.
Mirror neurons are behind our love of watching movies or TV shows and reading a juicy novel. It is why we can get lost in them as the same emotions well up in us, along with the corresponding neurochemicals: dopamine, serotonin, and even oxytocin. This is also the enjoyment behind watching sports. Our brains are firing as if we were running down the field, all the while triggering our dopamine. If there is painful contact with one of the players, everyone says, “Ohhh,” as if we somehow feel it.
If you have ever wondered if someone you know is a sociopath then try this test. Yawn in front of them and see if they follow with a yawn.
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