Defensive Intelligence: Have you trained your amygdala recently? Have you ever been startled by a snake or spider or perhaps someone suddenly yelling for no reason? What if I told you that your bodily response to this startling event had a very foundational part in self-defense? The first dot from which all other dots at the self indulgent picture get their arrangement is the amygdala.
No, it is not a mythical deity that warns warrior souls of impending peril. It’s the region of the brain which has its finger on the psychological cause of the mind. The amygdala and another region of the brain known as the hippocampus are responsible for memory and just about all memory retention. The hippocampus takes the use of recalling the specifics of the memory like context, but it’s the amygdala which leads to values and consequent emotion and activity applied to all those memories.
For instance, have you ever opened a drawer and jumped at the sight of a rubber spider or snake, just to exhale and grin a second later? How often have you heard something which made you immediately burst out in laughter, possibly spraying your drink you’d just taken a sip of, only to be ashamed a second later? Or maybe once you smell something which immediately takes you back rather than simply recall, but feel emotion out of fond moments in your past? The emotion and first reaction is that the amygdala in activity. The recognition that the snake at the above drawer wasn’t within an enclosure, protecting you from it, was the hippocampus.
The amygdala assigned an emotion (fear) which triggered an immediate response (a leap back and a potential yelp), and then the pre-frontal lobes (the logical,”believing” area of the brain) concluded that due to the coloring, visible mold seams from the rubber, and lack of general truth that it was OK and you didn’t need to flee. What’s important to understand this is the sequence in which the neural signal travels and what connection each region of the brain shares with the collective reaction you display.
When you open the drawer, your eyes send the sign of the snake into the thalamus, which then sends the signal to the visual cortex which joins with the pre-frontal lobes to rationalize the circumstance. But, the thalamus first sends a signal, in as few as.012 seconds, right into the amygdala for an immediate survival test. The other sign, after being processed at the pre-frontal lobes, remains taken back to the amygdala for mission of emotion about what you’re seeing.
But, the first signal to the amygdala, from the thalamus, causes the fight or flight reaction. How can the amygdala know to create a hyper reaction to a realistic snake and the simple act of monitoring to a picture of a snake? Its close working relationship with the hippocampus in production of memories allows this particular distinction. It’s the hippocampus that applies the context of what you’re seeing. This, in turn, controls the level to which the amygdala is stimulated by this original vigilance signal.
Keep in mind
But, the threatening nature of the snake, besides context, that leads to a trigger response is the specialization of the amygdala’s memory function. The introduction of a memory is in fact a secretion of compounds from the shooting of neural synapses prompted by the amygdala/hippocampus team. A minor incident like watching traffic pass in a stop light solicits a very minor synapse/chemical imprint that’s not a readily retrievable memory following the passing of minimal time.
However, the significant occurrence of a violent experience leaves a neural imprint which could readily be recovered years or decades after the event when triggered by the right stimuli. This is the first dot in the connect-the-dots image of response for self-defense. Before the emotional details of the episode (fear) put in, there’s also an immediate physical reaction controlled by the amygdala. This physical response (flinching, jumping back, crying, crying, etc.) can also be a sort of memory.
It’s a pre-programmed response from prior encounters or obtained knowledge, stored in exactly the identical chemical/synapse method, and it can be reprogrammed. While working with a dignitary security support, I attended a technical training course that specifically dealt with this reprogramming.
Let’s understand it
The method was to cover the “victim” with a black hood which was quickly jerked into the ceiling by means of a rope and pulley. While under the hood and being exposed to an auditory distraction that sounded like bricks in a clothes dryer, aggressors would randomly put themselves around the victim and play their role once the hood was yanked up. You might be attacked from behind, swung at with a closed fist, slashed at having a training knife, shot with a.357 loaded with blanks, simply asked for directions to the airport, etc..
The pattern was arbitrary to assess the appropriateness of your response. The key was that the violence-of-action. If you weren’t queried for directions or another passive experience, it would be an instantaneous, complete contact act of aggression which would lead to quick defeat if your amygdala caused flinching or passive physical draw.
After repeated exposure to immediate violence within a few days, the amygdala started to be reprogrammed to respond in an instantly aggressive character, countering the violent assault instead of a flinching reaction. You’ve heard that the key to training is repetition? It takes repetition to reprogram the amygdala to get a suitable self-defense response. How important is this? This physical response is initiated in as few as twelve thousandths of a second.