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Why does the mind struggle against itself?

by Dr. David Cox

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The interesting thing about our brains is that they’re not the same age all the way through. What I mean is, in evolutionary terms, the bits deep in the middle of the brain have been around the longest, while the bits on the outside evolved much more recently. This simple fact lies behind some of the phenomena that we see when trying to understand what’s going on with our behavior. The amygdala, part of the ancient brain, is commonly referred to as the seat of emotions. This is one of the parts that is working at lightning speed, helping you to feel that something is not right, even before you’ve worked out what the danger is. It’s great for surviving instinctively.

In contrast, the frontal cortex — a much more recent evolution in the human brain — is the home of executive thinking and control. This is the logical bit of the brain that “thinks,” that is, puts together rational facts and comes up with conclusions. It’s the bit that says “I can feel that I’m afraid of the dark, but I know logically that there are no monsters out there, so I’m going to keep walking down this country lane in the dark.”

So the amygdala and the frontal cortex are often in opposition with each other, maintaining a precarious balance between total emotional reactivity and cold rational logic. The thing is, it’s quite easy for things to fall out of balance. And when this happens, it’s usually the amygdala that wins the tug of war, hijacking the frontal cortex and many other parts of the brain, damping down their activity, and unleashing the full force of our fear/fight/flight response. And we all know what that feels like.

Why is any of this important? Well, a study from researchers in Italy and Denmark published in Clinical Psychology Review showed something really interesting:

When you put people in scanners that show activity in the brain and then give them psychotherapy while they’re in there, you can see the activity of the frontal cortex go up, and the amygdala quieten down. In effect, the therapy is like an extra man on the frontal cortex’s end of the rope in tug of war. This is great for winning the tug of war, at least until the next time the balance gets a bit precarious.

But mindfulness does something different. When you put people trained in mindfulness into the same brain scanners, you see that their amygdalas are actually quieter. They’re not just better at controlling their emotions, they’re actually less emotionally reactive in the first place. The mindfulness has gotten rid of a couple of the burly blokes from the amygdala’s end of the tug of war rope.

And since they’re not there anymore, that sense of serenity and level-headedness in the face of whatever life throws at you is much less likely to be so short lived. And even if the scales do start tipping back in the direction of the amygdala, which they inevitably will, it’ll be much easier for the cortex to give a bit of a heave on the rope and pull everything back into balance.

Go team frontal cortex!

Dr. David Cox

Dr David Cox is a UK-trained medical doctor with many years experience of working on the front line, as well as in management, in the UK's National Health Service.