amygdala, brain, depression, evolution, frontal lobes, God, Human Biology, image of God, medicine, mind, neural pathways, PTSD, science
Long time readers here, know that I suffer to a degree with SAD, seasonal affective disorder. During these past couple of weeks, with temperatures hovering near or below zero most days, I’ve spent time sitting at the window, since blessedly the sun was out most days.
I handled the intense cold and resultant miseries rather well, and was mostly upbeat and happy during our self-imposed snowbound exile.
With the return yesterday of vastly warmer temperatures, I found myself strangely depressed and grouchy. It got me to thinking, and you know what that means–I have something to say.
I’ve said often enough that one of the reasons why I can see God’s hand in creation so very clearly, is that life is tenacious. Spotting a lone dandelion growing in the cracks of an old sidewalk proves that. It seems that evolution does it job in providing mechanisms that protect our lives in various circumstances.
I came to the conclusion, that this was just one more instance of that. In the midst of the perceived “danger” the brain somehow protects us from the depression that such events should precipitate. After the danger is past, the natural depression descends since we can now afford to give attention to it.
This led to something I remembered from a three part show on PBS regarding the brain and how it functions. The Emotional Life describes a variety of brain mechanisms, often illustrating the working by showing dysfunctional brains where the mechanism is faulty.
One such is the amygdala, that small portion in our more primitive brain that operates to alert us to danger. A life-protecting mechanism in and of itself, it prepares us for “fight or flight,” flooding our bodies with adrenalin. This information is then sent to the frontal lobes, site of our rational cognitive thinking.
Here is where the problems begin. The prefrontal lobes examine the evidence and assess the danger. However, they are behind the game at this point. The amygdala is already in action, and the pathways from frontal lobe to amygdala, are not direct as they are from amygdala to frontal lobe. They are convoluted, containing a fairly round about way of getting there.
The amygdala thus functions to push the body to respond before the frontal lobes can get the information back to it, that it can relax. It has already poured forth its adrenalin. Interesting you say, but so what?
The commentator suggested that this portion of the brain, the FL to A pathway is not yet evolutionarily developed. We are on the way to a better connection, but not there yet. Evolutionarily speaking, it was better to be ready to act than to mull it over first. Makes perfect sense.
A couple of other fascinating things also are explained. It probably comes as no shock to most people that during a crisis (something fear inducing or terrorizing), we seem to have heightened senses. We hear, see, smell, feel, taste, more acutely. This apparently has something to do with the adrenalin or other chemicals that are released during such crisis conditions.
This means, that every single thing that happened during the moment of terror is exquisitely recalled in perfect detail. One can literally, upon proper cuing, smell the smells, and hear the sounds. Of more serious consequence, the memories are literally seared into memory. This has important implications for PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Here a particularly frightening episode is cued, and the person feels for all practical purposes as if they are once more actually there, within the event again.
Each and every recall brings on the adrenalin flow and the terror is relived in 3D . For years, given the military’s desire to downplay the disorder, and because we knew very little of the inner workings of the mind, no real treatment was effective. Now there is some hope. Namely, the patient is forced to recall and describe again and again in detail what they are experiencing. And the frontal lobes slowly help the person accept that the signals are but memory. In other words, the patient’s own mind signals back sooner that all is well.
In time, hundreds of thousands of years no doubt, we will have the capacity to shut down the amygdala much quicker when there is no real danger present. So we live with the disorders that faulty connections allow for now.
Why is any of this interesting? Well quite simply to me, understanding the inner workings of my mind is one of my ways of understanding God. I have come, over time, to the conclusion, that being made in the “image of God” can only mean having a brain that thinks like God’s does. Surely we all recognize that God is not the image of Michelangelo’s in the Sistine Chapel. Yet most of us do recall that image when we think of God.
Yet, I believe God is not corporeal but spirit. As such it would seem to me that we would have no reference point at all to “think” of God unless our minds were similar in nature. This is not to say that God does not have multiple “minds” each designed to the species (earth bound or otherwise). And in some sense, the evolutionary development of the human brain moves toward a more God-like orientation as it develops. Cats, as far as we know, don’t meditate on God, humans do.
It suggests to me that we are moving toward God as we move away from war, hate, anger, anxiety, selfishness, vanity, sloth and all those “sins”. As our brains develop, we move away from them as well. The frontal lobes take over and are the cop on the block, as it were.
Which is all to say that I appreciate my brain for its protection of my psyche during the great ice age just endured, saving my “depressing” day for a “safe” one. I look forward to the day when my brain doesn’t need this safety net, but can control itself by reason. Evolutionarily speaking the time needed is but a drop in the ocean of time. See ya there!