Monday, October 28, 2013

Your Emotionally Hot-Headed Aunt Amygdala

We all have one.  She comes to family gatherings bearing inedibly sweet desserts.  She sends you non-sensical birthday gifts three months late.  Her name comes up 100% of the time when family drama arises.  She's your crazy Aunt Amy.  Everybody in the family knows that Aunt Amy doesn't take kindly to criticism.  She has finely-tuned survival instincts.  Cross her or spook her, and everyone within earshot braces themselves for the backlash.  

Aunt Amy represents special structures in the brain called the amygdalae.  As opposed to the frontal lobe, which directs rational, decision-making, your amygdalae drive survival instincts.  To demonstrate the difference between these two operating systems, recall this clip from one of the greatest movies of all time: 

Dr. Grant (guy in the hat) reacts calmly when it becomes clear that a large dinosaur is approaching.  He has studied dinosaurs his whole life, and he knows (somehow) that the T-rex senses motion.  He cooly handles the situation, using this knowledge to avoid a certain demise by the giant's teeth.  Dr. Grant's frontal lobe is calling the shots.

On the other hand, the bald lawyer guy reacts impulsively.  In sheer terror, his brain yells "Get me out of here! Scream!  Panic!  Run!"   Baldy's amygdalae are performing exactly as they should.  They respond in whichever way seems most suitable for survival. 

The Evolution of Survival
Through the beauty of human evolution, we have become master survivalists.  Nowadays, however, we rely so much on creature comforts that the idea of "surviving" without our iPhone for a day is out of the question.  Despite this, our brains have remained wired for survival above all else.  

Amygdalae activation when test subjects
were shown faces rated as low in
trustworthiness or attractiveness.
(Mende-Siedlecki et al, 2013)
Imagine you are sitting in a business meeting.  Your company has been struggling financially, and you
sense that the boss may be required to make some cuts soon.  He begins asking questions about a recent project that wasn't executed properly.  You've had the feeling for a while that Greg, one of your colleagues, routinely drops the ball on his end.  As the discussion continues, suddenly a voice from the far end of the room chimes in and throws your name into the mix.  "He should have done such and such differently, blah blah blah."  You immediately react.  Your blood feels like it's about to boil.  Your face turns red, and you nearly burst as you wait for your turn to spit out a rebuttal.  "Greg, are you f*$%ing kidding me?!  You finished the spreadsheet two weeks late!  You held us all back!  You piece of sh*t!"  Whoa.  Easy there, killer. 

In this moment you allowed your amygdalae to take over.  Often times these scenarios are followed by an apology that sounds something like: "Sorry about that...I lost my cool."  You didn't want the boss to leave the meeting with the impression that you were responsible for the company failure, so your amygdalae kicked in.  Survival!  With some practice and self-reflection you likely won't let this happen again, lest your work colleagues begin to clump you in the same category as Aunt Amy: emotionally explosive and overly dramatic. 
 Special forces in the U.S. military routinely run drills in realistic combat scenarios in order to train their amygdalae to chill out when patience and calm are required to complete a mission.  If you are infiltrating a facility to rescue some hostages, you don't want to open fire on every living soul that moves.  You need to be able to react appropriately only when the time arises to shoot the bad guy.  If you haven't trained your amygdalae through hours of training to allow your frontal lobe to take the reigns in these scenarios, you could startle easily and open fire on civilians or your teammates.  No bueno.  These guys run through tactial scenarios for months so that they know what to expect, and they are prepared to respond rationally as opposed to impulsively when faced with the decision: to shoot or not to shoot.

Survival Instincts and Your Bad Habits
I've harped a lot on the amygdalae's role in responding to negative stimuli (Clinical evidence?  You betcha. See Aggleton, J.P., & Young, A.W. (2000)) but positive stimuli also can trigger an amygdaloid reaction.  

In addition to reacting to a ravenous beast that emerges from the jungle (negative), your brain also evolved to feed when food becomes available (positive).  Dieters often report specific food cravings as a major difficulty to sticking to their plan.  

"I could NEVER give up bread."  
"I've been doing great...except when I have access to chocolate."  

Evolutionary survival theory suggests that we instinctively stuff our faces when the opportunity arises.  Early hunter gatherers would often go days without a substantial meal.  To keep their energy up, they would eat anything that they came across in the environment.  The amygdalae trigger that feeling of "eat it...NOW!"  If you have experimented with long fasts - intentionally or unintentionally - you've experienced this reaction.  As soon as you sit down to eat a meal after not having eaten anything substantial for a week, you will ravenously stuff your face.  Your body knows it hasn't eaten for a while, and the amygdalae respond to help you survive by taking control of your actions once fuel is available.  This keeps you from starving in the event that you may have to go another long period without food.  Most of which is consumed in excess will be stored as fat, which will hold you over until the next large meal. 

Drugs, alcohol, and sex are also driven by the amygdalae.  The fact that drugs and alcohol stimulate the reward center in the brain may have a link to evolutionary survival, but this remains controversial.  Sex, on the other hand, clearly offers a survival advantage, as it increases the breadth of your gene pool.  Guys, the next time your wife accuses you of checking out the leggy blonde across the street, just tell her that it's merely a sign that your amygdalae are healthy.  

"Golly, Jennifer.  Your laugh really gets the 
glutamate bouncing all up in my amygdalae!"
Breaking the habits
What I'm getting at here is that there are two main operating systems that direct behavior: impulsive vs rational.  You need both, but the amygdalae trump all when allowed to operate unchecked.  When it kicks into gear, your rational mind goes out the window.  The goods news?  You can train yourself to overcome the amygdalae's emotional response to impulse.   

As I've already mentioned, positive or negative stimuli may stimulate the amygdalae to react for maximal survival potential.  In addition, the amygdalae are also involved in memory formation.  This shouldn't be a shocker.  You respond to various stimuli based on previous experiences.   Small children will approach dogs in the household fearlessly, regardless of the dog's body language or growl.  If the child is attacked during the first attempt, the incident may result in a lifelong fear of dogs.  The sight of a dog in the future may result in the child running in terror.  Bad experiences like this condition the child's amygdalae to respond with RUN! at the sight of a dog.  

On the flip side, if you cave in to the cravings for chocolate every time chocolate presents itself, this positive stimulus is conditioning your amygdalae to respond with EAT! every time you see chocolate.  What sets those with self control apart from those who claim that it's impossible to give up certain foods is that the former - whether or not it was a conscious effort - have conditioned their brains not to jump at the opportunity to consume the prohibited food.  With practice, it's possible to train yourself to do the same.

Psychologists have been using fear conditioning for years to help patients overcome irrational fears.  The process starts by having a patient recognize their fear and intellectualize it.  Take the fear of dogs as an example.  Why are you afraid?  What is your response?  Is this the response that you wish to have?  How would you prefer to respond in the future?  This question and answer format slowly transitions to exposing the patient to pictures of dogs, then perhaps inviting the patient to view a dog from a distance.  Eventually, the clinician will invite the patient to approach a dog and to pet it.  

Another example of conditioning used in impulse control is exposure & response prevention (ERP) for the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  OCD commonly manifests as impulsive hand washing.  If the amygdalae in these patients are allowed to run rampant, they'll insist on washing their hands dozens or even hundreds of times per day despite realizing that it's excessive.  Sound familiar mister candy bowl scavenger?  ERP works by forcing a patient to identify these impulses in order to understand them.  The full therapy requires the patient to wait progressively longer periods of time before they are allowed to give in to the temptation until, eventually, they have trained themselves to wait it out indefinitely.  A 2011 study found that 88% of patients with OCD benefited from ERP therapy. 

The same can be done for a food that you have been struggling to quit.  Sweets are ubiquitous on clients' lists of dietary foes.  If I gave you a Hershey kiss, you would probably unwrap it and pop it into your mouth without even thinking about it.  You've allowed your amygdalae to drive this behavior for years.  If there was a bowl of Hershey kisses in your office, you would frequent the bowl, eating one after another without realizing it because you've conditioned your amygdalae to respond to chocolate like this.  This is why it's difficult to stick to your diet.  It's not the fact that you had a piece of candy.  The problem is that you eat an entire bag of candy without realizing it.  You need to take control.

When you're looking at a restaurant menu, the cravings you get for dessert are prayed upon by the chef.  Our society has been conditioned over our whole lives to jump on the opportunity to eat delicious chocolate mousse.  Even the sight of something you've enjoyed only once before activates the amygdalae.  Instead of allowing your amygdala to take control, think about your dietary goals.  Think about the mousse.  Do you really need to order that?  It's going to taste good for a few minutes, but is this important to you?

Your Turn
I want you to try something.  Go find a piece of your favorite candy.  Hold the candy, touch it, examine it.  Look very carefully at every curve.  Feel the texture.  Smell it.  Press it to your lips.  Unwrap it.  Re-wrap it.  Spend 10 minutes with the piece of candy.   Then put it in your mouth, but don't chew.  Just let it sit in your mouth for another 3 minutes.  Eventually, chew it up and swallow it.  Enjoy!  Then go back to what you were doing.  Take the time to recognize how your body reacts to the food vices in your life.  Dieting is not about prohibiting yourself from eating your favorite foods.  It's about transforming your behavior from negative to positive in order to achieve your goals.  

Want to give it a shot?  Choose a food that you know is bad for you but that you can't seem to quit.  When a craving arises, follow this check-list:

1)  Acknowledge the craving.

2)  Consider the impulse that this particular food incites ("I want that in my face.")
3)  Ask yourself, "Is this in line with my health goals?"

Conditioning exercises are an essential practice in controlling dietary reflexes.  Additionally, they will help you control your response to the jerk at a business meeting, the dude that cut you off on the highway, temptations for a smoke break, or the hottie at the bar looking for bros to buy her free drinks on Friday nights.  

This is exactly what we train our health coaching clients to do, as it's the key to breaking unhealthy habits.  Many of our clients ask us for a checklist describing what they should do to be healthy.  They adopt the checklist as gospel, then they feel like failures if they slip up.  You shouldn't feel like a failure!  You must realize that you have practiced these bad habits for years, and it's going to take some time to break those habits.  You'll probably fail more than once even with diligent practice, but, if you're serious about breaking these habits, then patience is requiredThere are no silver bullets to fix your health concerns.  Your amygdalae are important for your survival; eating the entire plate of brownies is not.  

It's going to be hard, but Sweat and Butter is here to help.  Let's break some bad habits!
Offline resources: 
  • Aggleton, J.P., & Young, A.W. (2000). The enigma of the amygdala: On its contribution to human emotion. In R.D. Lane & L. Nadel (Eds.), Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion (pp. 106-128). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Patterson, Kerry. Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. New York, McGraw-Hill. 2008. Audiobook.

Nathan Riley is a 2014 MD candidate at Temple University School of Medicine.  He writes about food, movement, sleep, relationships, and stress in order to bridge the gap between his patients and evolutionary theory and clinical evidence. You call follow him on Twitter @BeyondtheMD.  He can be reached at  You can also connect with him on Google+.

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  1. Compassion meditation just might be a helpful tool for better modulation in the amygdalae and that this modulation improves over time as one becomes an "expert". Oh the possibilities!

    "Buddhist monks who do compassion meditation have been shown to modulate their amygdala, along with their temporoparietal junction and insula, during their practice.[18] In an fMRI study, more intensive insula activity was found in expert meditators than in novices.[19] Increased activity in the amygdala following compassion-oriented meditation may contribute to social connectedness.[20]"

  2. well this is certainly something I'm interested in pursuing, Miss Katherine...


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