Expectations, Fear, and How the Amygdala Regulates Thought

PUBLISHED: Dec 9, 2019

In This Episode.

Using a classic moment from Animal House, Dave and Steve offer a quick tour of the brain, focusing on how one little part of the brain—the amygdala—determines whether our brain reacts instinctively or engages in higher-order thinking.  So powerful is the little amygdala that even when our brains encounter minor surprises, it provokes cognitive and physiological reactions that suppress critical thinking.

Episode Archive

Expectations, Fear, and How the Amygdala Regulates Thought

December 9, 2019

Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: They’re here to do two things chew bubble gum and make you smarter, and they’re all out of bubble gum smarter with Dave and Steve.

Steve Pearlman: Hey, Dave, you ever been in a situation where you were so flabbergasted by what was going on that you basically lost all capacity for rational thought?

Dave Carillo: Right now, I don’t think I have any capacity for rational thought.

Steve Pearlman: Some would would say I seldom have any capacity for rational thought.

Dave Carillo: Oh, right. What do you mean? Like a situation where, say, walking down the street, I get lost. I stumble into an alley, something I’m confronted by a grizzly bear.

Steve Pearlman: I thought you were going to say by someone with a pair of sunglasses that let you identify the fact that the Earth is actually highly populated by a ugly aliens who were trying to get you to conform.

Dave Carillo: To be honest, I would like to think that I would be open to the experience of putting on these sunglasses and then seeing the world through that particular filter. But on the other hand, if I’m feeling really emotional about the situation, I might fight with every ounce of my strength not to do something.

Steve Pearlman: You got that right? What if you were going to give you a hypothetical? What if you were pledging a fraternity, OK, and you found yourself amidst some kind of pledge prank that you were required to pull off that involved? I’m just going to go at this randomly here for no reason whatsoever. Shooting a horse in the office of the Dean,

Dave Carillo: That’s a very that’s a that is a classic fraternity hazing ritual, the shooting of the horse and the dean. I also think I also think that’s a Masonic rite, isn’t it? The shooting of the horse Freemason Freemason? Yeah, exactly.

Steve Pearlman: Well, that’s what today’s podcast is about is in fact, about a scene from the movie Animal House, where flounder, the young man pledging the fraternity is being charged with shooting a horse in the dean’s office. And we’ll give you the backstory on that in a second and also about a part of your brain called the amygdala, which governs the fight, flight or freeze response. And when activated, when you get scared, when you get highly stressed out affects your capacity to perform any kind of rational reasoning and instead takes over in forcing some kind of emotional response out of you. And so today’s podcast is going to talk about the role the amygdala plays in your decision making process, how powerful it is, how to start recognizing when it’s hijacking your capacity for thought, and most importantly, how to start addressing that hijacking of your brain so that you can regain control of it and make better decisions.

Dave Carillo: So in this clip, John Belushi’s character Bluto, Bruce McGill’s character D-Day and Steven first character Flounder have taken the horse from the stables. They’ve parked this horse in the dean’s office, and Flounder thinks that the prank is done and they have done a stellar job. And at that point, D-Day and Bluto turn it on its head by handing flounder a gun and suggesting that the intention all along was to have him go in there and execute this horse in the dean’s office so they give them the gun and he goes on in.

Steve Pearlman: And I think it’s important to note that there are blanks in the gun that they gave him, that they weren’t even really intending on him killing the horse, but that he actually fires the gun in the air and doesn’t even shoot it at the horse. So for those of you who are very concerned about

Dave Carillo: If few people, if you haven’t seen Animal House and you think that this is suddenly some sort of exercise in

Steve Pearlman: Actual, there is no horse executioner,

Dave Carillo: No horse was in any way hurt in the filming of this

Steve Pearlman: Movie. Well, I don’t know if that’s true, either. If this horse was not shot in the scene, right?

Dave Carillo: At least the horse ends up having a heart attack. And at that point, you hear everybody’s inability to rationally deal with the situation in any way, shape or form.

Steve Pearlman: Most of all, Bluto, who you will hear not dealing with it

Animal House: At all, at all. Holy shith-tuh. We’re blanks in that gun. I didn’t even point the gun at him. Holy shith-tuh. There were blanks in that gun. Maybe he had a heart attack. Holy shith-tuh.

If you go to the transcript, they have to spell shit as shith-tuh.

Steve Pearlman: Well as how we spell it on the podcast episode title.

Dave Carillo: If you don’t see it spelled like that on the podcast title, if you feel free to get in touch with us. So in a sense, what you’re seeing in this scene other than nice little comedic turn there where you, as the audience even are assuming that the prank is over until they hand them the gun with blanks or multiple stress related situations, the stress of removing the horse, the stress of getting the horse into the dean’s office. Then there’s the stress of founder finding out that he has to finish the job.

Steve Pearlman: Flounder had the stress of

Dave Carillo: A shoot the horse and then once he fires into the air and the horse has some sort of heart attack or something,

Steve Pearlman: Which is representative of the horse’s stress. Think about the stress that horse was, and

Dave Carillo: We don’t advocate horses getting heart attacks.

Steve Pearlman: I don’t think our advocacy of that matters because I tend to think that the horses are going to have heart attack. I don’t think anyone should shoot them.

Dave Carillo: You know, we would never advocate horse killing in any way, shape or form. But they’ve all been now brought into this highly stressful situation.

Steve Pearlman: And you see John Belushi, Pluto’s utter inability to process that any any of it in any functional way. And that’s why he’s just cursing, right? We’ll have to do a podcast as well on why cursing happens because it’s part of that same kind of response sometimes, and that cognitive function that cursing can actually serve for us to outlet emotion.

Dave Carillo: I’ll need some time to record my everyday goings on so that everybody out there has a good idea of what constant profanity, regardless of the situation, sounds like.

Steve Pearlman: So you hear John Belushi just cursing and then eventually they all run. And that’s a perfect setup for our discussion today of the amygdala,

Dave Carillo: Which is that part of the brain that essentially kicks in once you find yourself in some sort of high stress, potentially life threatening situation.

Steve Pearlman: The amygdala is job in your brain is to determine which part of the brain gets to do the thinking to make this as simple as possible. There are two parts of your brain. There’s the part in the back of your head around the top of your spinal column, which is referred to as the primal brain or the lizard brain. Or it goes by other terms and basically that part of your brain is designed to keep you alive. Designed to work with what we call the f three response the fight, flight or freeze response. And so when that part’s active, there is no higher order thinking going on. You’re just trying to run away from the bear fight, the bear hide from the bear. That’s all you’re capable of doing. And it changes all kinds of physiological things happening in your body at that time.

Dave Carillo: And it’s a beautiful thing because a lot of our ancestors were able to escape being eaten by said Bear.

Steve Pearlman: Yeah. More to the point, really. If we didn’t involve that, none of us would be

Dave Carillo: Here at all in any circumstance.

Steve Pearlman: Now, the other part of the brain, the frontal lobe of the brain, part up on top of your eyes and so forth. That part of your brain is designed to do your higher order thinking, abstract thinking, critical thinking. When the amygdala feels great amount of threat and stress, what it does is it says, All right, let’s shut off effectively that frontal part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex. Let’s activate your lizard brain, and let’s just make sure we get the heck out of here and survive. And that’s what you hear happening in that instance. John Belushi, who has lost the capacity to process what’s going on in any cognitive sense and instead is just cursing out and eventually fleeing the situation because his lizard brain has become active because he’s so freaked out by what’s happening, right?

Dave Carillo: Hats off to flounder and D-Day, who are at least able to start to reason through certain elements of this thought they were blanks in that gun. There were blanks in that gun. I just I didn’t shoot him. I fired into the air and so on and so forth.

Steve Pearlman: Well, and if you’re familiar with the movie Animal House, it is not surprising that Bluto is the one who is utterly incapable of any rational thought because he’s generally utterly incapable of any rational thought. He’s a big kid walking around campus,

Dave Carillo: And if you’re not familiar with the movie at the end, they show several of the main characters moving off into their separate post-college directions. And then you find out that Bluto became a senator and trying to make sense. So here’s the project for today. Although our ancestors found themselves facing life threatening situations all the time with bears and larger bears, and any more of them are really

Steve Pearlman: Tall animals down to bears and larger bears.

Dave Carillo: Well, as far as I’m concerned, when I’m hiking in the woods, there’s bears and the bears that are bigger than the other bears, and you have to watch out for all of them. These days, though, we very rarely face the same kind of life threatening situations. But the amygdala still exists, and our brains still find ways to perceive situations as life threatening, even when they aren’t necessarily life threatening. For example, I’m a Steelers fan, so when someone comes up to me and says Steelers suck go patriots, I perceive that as some sort of life-threatening response.

Steve Pearlman: I can sympathize with that as a Giants fan. For example, I’m triggered by the start of any Giants

Dave Carillo: Game, right? Who a Giants fan, any football game almost is a life threatening

Steve Pearlman: Situation, basically, yes, any talk of football, any mention of football, seeing a football, but

Dave Carillo: Seeing a football, thinking about football, he’s sweating right now, folks. At any rate, we don’t encounter the same kind of life threatening situations, but our brains can perceive things as life threatening even when they’re not. Daniel Goldman in Nineteen Ninety Five wrote this great book called Emotional Intelligence, and in it he coined the term amygdala hijack. And the amygdala hijack is essentially a moment where the amygdala, that limbic system, the lizard brain, interrupts the rest of the brain’s ability to think reasonably about a situation and turns it into a fight or flight. Stress laden high stimulus situation. And there are three signs of amygdala hijack, and we want you to see if you can recognize moments where your brain is perceiving something as life threatening. But that situation might not actually be that way. If you can spot a moment like that and figure out whether you’re being hijacked by your amygdala. You can do something about that. Those signs are strong emotional reaction, sudden onset of the emotional reaction, and reflecting and realizing that the reaction wasn’t as appropriate as it could have been. So your project is see if you can recognize a moment where you’re experiencing amygdala hijack. See if you can slow it down such that you can reflect on it in the moment. That’s the first part of your project. Recognize a moment where you’re experiencing amygdala hijack.

Steve Pearlman: It’s so critical that everyone start to pay attention to that, but we want to make it clear to everyone also that you may not realize the vast number of times on a daily basis that your amygdala is actually, to some degree, perhaps a much smaller degree trying to hijack your brain. And as you start to become aware of the bigger things, you can also start to become aware of the smaller things, but they can be very subtle. There’s just one study that’s done it’s called threatened by the unexpected physiological responses during social interactions with expectancy violating partners. It’s from two thousand seven in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and the term expectancy violating partners basically means this. They paired people up together to have them do something, and they had one of the partners who is actually a plant, and they had this person violate expectations in a particular way, and they measured the physiological and cognitive responses of the participants. Well, let me give you an example of how subtle this is. One of the things they did was they actually just had one of the partners be an Asian person who had a heavy southern accent. And because of that violated expectation, it actually showed that the people working with those Asian partners with their southern accents showed physiological responses because it was perceived in some regard as some kind of threat to the norm. And that’s probably not something that those people necessarily self-perceived. Sometimes they did in the study, and sometimes they didn’t. But certainly it’s something that’s much subtler than what we’re going to find ourselves in a potential car accident or someone’s attacking or have to watch a giants game or a large bear or even small bear. Right? Your distinction clear.

Dave Carillo: All right. So the implication here is that there are moments during the day when you’re not even aware of the amygdala hijacking your brain to some extent, whether it’s life threatening or not, the thick southern accent is not life threatening. But if that’s all it takes is just one sort of break of our assumptions and good god, we really have to get a hold of this.

Steve Pearlman: So therefore, this first exercise this week is about going out, becoming self aware of the big ones, right? And as you become more and more self aware, you can start to become self aware as well of the smaller one, right? So let’s move into the second exercise, which is what we can do when we feel our amygdala being hijacked and there are ways to cope with it from meditation, which is absolutely wonderful and important. Everyone should do it to all kinds of neuro linguistic programming and so on. But we’re just going to start with something very simple here. Your brain will make a distinction between two different kinds of stress, so not all stress is necessarily equal. It’s not all necessarily bad. There is stress that’s perceived as threat, which is what we’ve been talking about, mostly with respect to the amygdala. But then there’s also stress that the brain perceives as challenge, and it’s perceived as challenge. When the brain believes that we have the capacity and the resources to contend with whatever is giving us stress. So we feel able to handle that stress if we can perceive it as a challenge. If we feel unable to handle that stress, we perceive it as a threat. And there’s actually fascinating research on this in the education field about students who, when they perceive challenge, might actually perform better. When they perceive threat, they perform worse. And again, if you know people who would be interested in our other podcast, which is education focused, it’s called the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast. Send people over there, but back to the matter at hand.

Steve Pearlman: The second exercise this week is that when you start to perceive amygdala hijacking happening in your brain, your goal is to start to look at that situation or that stimulus in such a way that you can try to start to change it from threat stress into challenge stress. And the way you might do that are just look at the resources you might have available to you, not only ways you could think about it, but friends you might have or colleagues or other things that can help you contend with this or overcome it. List out steps you could take. You could write them out as a really great way to do it. But even if you just list in your head the two three four eight steps that you can start to take to contend with this and take it on as a challenge. Change your language from this is freaking me out to. This is something that I am going to have to engage very hard, start to move yourself into a challenge state of mind about that thing. Now, this only applies to things where you’re going to have a little time and thought to be able to process it. This isn’t the car that pulls out and almost hits you. That’s just a pure amygdala, lower brain moment. Go with it. Don’t try to take that on as a challenge. Just let your body do the fight, flight or freeze response. We’re talking about things where you might find something stressful going on at work or at home or in a relationship, or what

Dave Carillo: Have you, or sitting around a table at Thanksgiving watching a giants game. So that’s what you have in your head people. You have a thinking brain and you have the amygdala that’s trying to keep you out of trouble and try to recognize when your amygdala is trying to hijack your

Steve Pearlman: Brain, take the steps to turn it into a challenge. List ways that you can do that. List the resources you have. Think about how you’re going to embrace it as a challenge.

Dave Carillo: But if your horse prank goes horribly awry, definitely get out of the dean’s office as fast as you can.


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