The Powerful Emotional Brain

The 'thinking' part of our brains (the neocortex) is relatively new in evolutionary terms. Before our brains developed into the awesome organs they are now, enabling us to plan, imagine, analyse things and make judgements, we relied for our survival on our more primitive 'mammalian' brain.

The mammalian brain, a set of structures which lie underneath the neocortex, is often termed the 'emotional brain', because it is concerned with instinctive responses involving emotions - most notably the fight-or-flight (anger or fear) response.

All instinctive behaviour concerns survival: feeding, mating, fighting or fleeing. And our instincts induce emotions that require us to take action (ideally to carry out the instinctive behaviour so as to lower the arousal again).

All emotional needs arise out of this fundamental survival programme. When the neocortex developed, we had rational intelligence at our disposal, as well as emotional intelligence, and, in the ordinary everyday, the two intelligences work together in partnership, with the rational brain adding subtlety and perspective to the raw feelings of the emotional brain, and the emotional brain tempering the rational brain's cool clinical judgements.

But emotions can often overpower the rational brain, as we shall see.

The emotional brain contains a very small and powerful structure known as the amygdala - so called because it is almond-shaped and amygdala in ancient Greek means almond. In effect, the amygdala acts as the body's alarm system. It has access to our store of emotional memories and learned responses and its job is to be alert to any possible danger to us by matching new events to patterns in its store and, from that, judging whether we might be at risk.

For instance, suppose we are walking alone down a dark street late at night and there is a sudden unexpected crunching sound or a quick movement. Our attention is drawn to it instantly and, in less than a split second, our amygdala decides whether the sound or movement could signify danger. It pattern matches the sound to the crunch of footsteps. It pattern matches the movement to that of a person darting out of an alleyway.

Making its best guess, on the basis of what it knows from its memory stores that the sound or movement could signify, the amygdala takes the worst-case scenario and sets off the alarm. In effect, it concludes, "We are under threat! Or, at least, we might be! So we had better be ready to turn and fight or else run for it." Because it needs to make an instant decision to get us out of any potential danger as quickly as possible, the amygdala's pattern matching is very crude. It is black and white - a situation is either safe or it isn't.

Therefore, it doesn't have the sophistication of the thinking brain, which can introduce some shades of grey to the situation and might conclude that, yes, the crunch is definitely footsteps but the owner of the feet, far from being a psychopathic killer, is probably only a neighbour from down the street. And the sense of movement from the alleyway is not a shadowy alien figure with ill intent but merely a black bin bag blowing in the breeze. "

Strong emotions focus and lock our attention ... every-thing is simplified to a black-or-white choice... " But, at this point, the thinking brain hasn't yet had a look in. When the amygdala decides that we might be under threat, it takes the steps required (by sending chemical signals) to set the fight-or-flight response in motion without seeking any by your leave from the neocortex. In fact, this has all already happened by the time the neocortex gets to know what is going on half a second later.

Our heart is already pounding, our legs shaking and our breathing coming short and quick by the time we recognise Bob or Nancy from two doors down or identify the bin bag. We quickly calm down then, of course, and become reasonable people again, instead of gibbering wrecks.

Emotional arousal makes us stupid

If you are going to learn to handle anxiety, this is crucial to understand: when the amygdala is centre stage, excitedly setting off alarms like this to save our skins, it is so powerful that it can actually shut down our higher intelligence completely. It is as if it has a simple on/off button that it can use to deactivate the thinking part of our brains.

When our bodies are in a state of high emotional arousal (whether we are angry, terrified or head over heels in love), we are not thinking straight. High emotional arousal makes us temporarily stupid. Or, to put it more politely, it reduces our options to a simple choice to force us to take action. It has to be this way.

For example, if from down the street you see a motorbike up on the pavement, accelerating towards you, you don't want your thinking brain weighing up the odds and wondering, "Surely he knows he shouldn't be on the pavement? Maybe it's a film stunt? In that case, where are the cameras? Is that a Harley-Davidson he's riding? Hmmm ... actually he is going very fast. And he is driving straight at me! I wonder if I should just step out of the way in case he hasn't seen me ... ?" By that time, you might well be dead.

So, in such life-or-death circumstances, we don't want a highly intelligent system that can carry out reasoned analysis. We want an excitable (and therefore stupid) system that can terrify us and make us dodge the bike and run for it before we even know what we are doing! So sometimes panic is the right response.

In other circumstances, however, the 'threat' might tum out to be harmless and, if you have already legged it, you might well feel a prize fool. But your amygdala doesn't care whether you get embarrassed or not. It knows that you can get embarrassed a hundred times and it won't kill you; but fail to act on a genuine life-or-death threat just once, and you are likely to end up never needing this wonderful survival mechanism again.

The dimmer switch

Of course, as we've already acknowledged, most of the threats we face today are not of the life-or-death variety. But we still need the fight-or-flight response to stay intact for those occasions when calamity really could strike - to help us avoid the speeding car, falling tree or flying missile, for example, or deal with any other emergency.

There is a problem with the system, though. If it's activated in less than life-or-death circumstances and the fear feelings which are aroused aren't acted upon in any way, the emotional arousal will continue - which means we won't be thinking at our best.

So, not only is the amygdala able to make us take actions before the neocortex even knows anything about it; it can also keep the neocortex functioning under par for long periods of time. In other words, as well as having an on/off switch for the neocortex; it operates a dimmer switch too.

If we remain partially emotionally aroused, then we are partially stupid - or, dimmer! This is what will have happened if you have ever revised really hard for an exam, yet, once you were in the examination room, your mind went completely blank and suddenly all that hard-learned material was totally unavailable to you.

If you had previously been imagining taking the exam and " Your anxiety denies you full access to your thinking brain. " worrying about not doing well, your amygdala is quite likely to have made the pattern match that being in the exam room constituted a threat. Consequently, it sets up a low-grade fight-or-flight response, and your anxiety denies you full access to your thinking brain; anxiety has thus caused many an intelligent mind to go blank whilst taking exams.

As we've mentioned, the amygdala's pattern matching is a crude process. It looks for broad similarities, not distinctive details. Thus it can't tell the difference between an event that we have been worrying about in our imagination and one that has really happened. It sets off the alarm bells, regardless.

Memories are not set in stone

And there is another big problem. Once that disastrous exam situation has occurred for real, rather than just being a worry, the amygdala is able to confirm it as a definite a threat to our wellbeing and is all the more ready to raise the alarm, should it occur again.

Therefore, how we approached having to take the exam, and how we interpreted our 'exam nerves', will have affected the way in which we recorded the experience of exam taking in our memory. But, fortunately, memories are not set in stone. If our experience becomes different, we can change the memories, so that they cease to come up as a pattern match with apparently life-threatening circumstances. (If a memory is traumatic, however, and thus deeply etched, a skilled therapist can use a simple procedure, known as the 'rewind technique', to achieve this effect. It takes the emotion out of the memory, thus lowering the associated arousal and freeing up the thinking brain. We describe it in another article)

So, as we have seen, when the amygdala is in full flow, it is sending a cascade of signals to the neocortex, inhibiting its ability to understand and analyse situations, and forcing us into emotional black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking that prevents us from being able to consider other possibilities and take a wider viewpoint.

The ultimate black-and-white thought is, of course, "Shall I fight or shall I flee?" (Indeed, some people do flee from exam rooms.) But there are many other varieties of black-and-white thinking that strongly serve to increase anxiety and keep it going. We are going to look at these next.

Continued in this article: Black-and-white thinking