Defensive Intelligence: Have you trained your amygdala lately?
Have you ever been startled by a spider or snake or maybe someone abruptly yelling for no reason? What if I told you that your physical reaction to that startling event had a very foundational role in self-defense?
The first dot from which all other dots in the self-defense picture get their structure is the amygdala. No, it’s not a mythical deity that warns warrior spirits of imminent peril. It’s the area of the brain that has its finger on the emotional trigger of our brain. The amygdala and another part of the brain called the hippocampus are responsible for memory and almost all memory retention.
The hippocampus takes the role of remembering the specifics of the memory such as context, but it is the amygdala that causes values and resultant emotion and action applied to those memories. For example, have you ever opened a drawer and jumped at the sight of a rubber snake or spider, only to exhale and smile a second later? How many times have you heard something that made you instantly burst out in laughter, maybe spraying your drink you had just taken a sip of, only to be embarrassed a second later? Or maybe when you smell something that immediately takes you back and not just remember, but feel emotion from fond moments in your past?
The emotion and initial reaction is the amygdala in action. The recognition that the snake in the aforementioned drawer was not in an enclosure, protecting you from it, was the hippocampus. The amygdala assigned an emotion (fear) which triggered an immediate reaction (a jump back and a possible yelp), and then the pre-frontal lobes (the rational, “thinking” area of the brain) reasoned that because of the coloring, visible mold seams in the rubber, and lack of general realism that it was OK and you did not need to flee.
What is important to understand here is the order in which the neural signal travels and what relationship each part of the brain shares with the collective response you display. When you open the drawer, your eyes send the signal of the snake to the thalamus, which in turn sends the signal to the visual cortex which links up with the pre-frontal lobes to rationalize the situation. But, the thalamus first sends a signal, in as little as.012 seconds, directly to the amygdala for an immediate Synapse xt survival evaluation. The other signal, after being processed in the pre-frontal lobes, is still shot back to the amygdala for assignment of emotion about what you are seeing. But, the initial signal to the amygdala, from the thalamus, causes the fight or flight response.
How does the amygdala know to cause a hyper reaction to a realistic snake and the simple act of observation to a picture of a snake? Its close working relationship with the hippocampus in creation of memories allows this differentiation. It is the hippocampus that applies the context of what you are seeing. This, in turn, controls the degree to which the amygdala is stimulated by this initial vigilance signal. But, the threatening nature of the snake, aside from context, that results in a trigger reaction is the specialty of the amygdala’s memory function.
The creation of a memory is actually a secretion of chemicals from the firing of neural synapses prompted by the amygdala/hippocampus team. A minor incident like watching traffic pass at a stop light solicits a very minor synapse/chemical imprint that is not an easily retrievable memory after the passage of minimal time. However, the major occurrence of a violent encounter leaves a neural imprint that can easily be retrieved years or decades after the event when triggered by the correct stimuli.
This is the first dot in the connect-the-dots picture of reaction for self-defense. Before the emotional aspects of the incident (fear, panic) set in, there is also an immediate physical reaction commanded by the amygdala. This physical reaction (flinching, jumping back, yelling, screaming, etc.) is also a type of memory. It is a pre-programmed response from previous encounters or gained knowledge, stored in the same chemical/synapse method, and it can be reprogrammed.
While working with a dignitary security service, I attended a specialized training course that specifically dealt with this reprogramming. The method was to cover the “victim” with a black hood that was quickly jerked to the ceiling via a rope and pulley. While under the hood and being subjected to an auditory distraction that sounded like bricks in a clothes dryer, aggressors would randomly place themselves around the victim and play their part when the hood was yanked up. You may be attacked from behind, swung at with a closed fist, slashed at with a training knife, shot at with a.357 loaded with blanks, simply asked for directions to the airport, etc. The pattern was random to evaluate the appropriateness of your response.