One of the World’s Smallest “Engines of Change” Is Also One of Its Most Powerful. On An Almost Unimaginable Scale, the Amygdala Rules

Over the holidays, Sherry and I traveled to Florida to visit the grandson (and his parents and our other daughter, too). Once again, I was transfixed by how magically and effortlessly the grandmother can influence the behaviors of a four-year-old often hell-bent, like most four-year-olds (not to mention Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka, Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious and Dogbert), on insisting that he get to do it “my way.”

What she does is seemingly effortless and done with near-endless patience and faith that a non-train-wreck outcome is always possible with the little guy if you’ll just use your smarts and hang in there a little longer.

When it appears that the excrement is about to hit the fan with him, she turns into a micromanager in a very good sense. If he’s out of control, she goes to work on getting him focused. If he’s overly focused, she encourages him to light up. If he can’t see the forest for the trees, she helps him understand the consequences of going tree-less. If things are looking overwhelmingly negative for him, she moves swiftly to rearranges his environment so that it may not be necessary for him to look from that vantage point at all.

If there was a centerpiece of a principle or technique in her formidable child management skills, for the longest I couldn’t see exactly what it was. But on this trip the aha! arrived. I can now see that in his presence this boy’s grandmother is doing a deliberate brain change thing as surely as neutrons have synapses! She causes his brain to change its moods almost on (her) demand. And when you change the mood of a homo sapiens, you almost guarantee a change in what an individual is likely to do—what she or he is capable of doing—next.

Now, this is not a new idea. For example, creativity, high performance and stress prevention consultants have long espoused the merits of Be Happy moods for opening the mind to new ideas and wider perspectives and more propitious problem-solving outcomes. What’s now happening is that neuroscientists are beginning to zero in on the brain mechanics of such mood changes.

In fact, you may have noticed that a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences just before Christmas got a lot of media ink. Researchers at the University of Toronto announced new data that suggests that our mood affects the way we process information. Think of your attention as like a spotlight, say these researchers. A good mood will widen that spotlight—you can see a lot more (and if you aren’t careful you may see too much!). Conversely, a negative mood tightens your focus and makes you focus acutely on certain specifics (and that can easily be detrimental if you need to be observing a lot of things at once).

In terms of brain parts, one researcher, Dr. Robert Maurer at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, says suspicions fall heavily on the mid-brain’s amygdala. “The amygdala triggers fear, and fear can shut down the part of the brain that makes you creative. When you are happy, the amygdala is quiet….”

Here, then, are two hugely important cycles for our brain:
Overheated amygdala = fear = negative moods = sharper focus = (potentially) tunnel vision.
Well-cooled amygdala = pleasure = positive moods = wide-beam attention = (potentially) observing too much or too little attentively.

In addition to explaining my grandson’s grandmother’s skills at influencing his behaviors, I strongly suspect that the consequences of these two brain cycles are being writ large all around us on an almost daily basis.

For example, in my metro area of North Texas, we have a suburb named Farmers Branch. It has a mayor and city council that have declared war on “illegal aliens”—mostly immigrants from South and Central America who are in the U.S. without authority. The latest move of the city fathers and mothers is a law outlawing the rental of apartments to anyone who can’t prove legal immigrant status. Apparently, the town’s politicians passed the law without giving much if any thought to what the full range of results of such a law would be, and even before it goes into effect, the law is threatening to tear the town apart. What led to all this? I’d suggest there were a lot of overheated amygdalas in Farmers Branch, and now there are more than ever.

The same thing happened nationally with 9/11. Not in our lifetime have so many amygdalas in this country become so quickly overheated. And because the resulting tunnel so completely swallowed our ability to envision consequences and nuances, our national identify and well-being in America continue to be at risk from inactivity or proactive measures of an inept or ill-targeted kind.

But things may not be quite as bad as they were. Amygdalas may be cooling. Otherwise, we would not have seen the national election results of Nov. 7. And the author of the current No. 1 New York Times non-fiction bestseller, a book called The Audacity of Hope, would not have emerged as a serious potential presidential candidate almost overnight. And former presidential counselor Bill Moyers almost certainly would not have uttered these words a few weeks ago to a blue-chip audience of progressives in New York:

“We have a story of … power. It is that the promise of America leaves no one out. Go now, and tell it on the mountains. From the rooftops, tell it. From your laptops, tell it. From the street corners and from Starbucks, tell it. Tell it at the synagogue, sanctuary and mosque. Tell it where you can, when you can and while you can—to every candidate for office, to every talk-show host and pundit, to corporate executives and schoolchildren. Tell it—for America’s sake.”

The brain simply can’t conjure those kinds of words, or sit in approving reception of them, with overheated amygdalas. No more than Sherry’s and my grandson can easily see the wisdom of doing something different when his amygdala is overwrought. May the amygdalas of America continue to cool for some time to come. For the world’s sake.

Read about the University of Toronto’s and other researchers’ findings about moods and attention here: Happy Emotions Boost Creativity

Read the first chapter of U.S. Senator Barak Obama’s book here [registration may be required]:
The Audacity of Hope

Read an adaptation of Bill Moyers’ Dec. 12 remarks to a New York event sponsored by The Nation, Demos, the Brennan Center for Justice and the New Democracy project here:
For America’s Sake

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