You wake up, stub your toe on the foot of the bed, and things spiral downward. Coffee spills on your shirt and heavy traffic makes you late to the office. You’re having that classic, wicked bad day. But would you guess that how well you control your emotions is due to your brain’s reptilian function?
Meet your amygdala, an almond shaped structure in the brain, located in the temporal lobe near the hippocampus. Considered your brain’s “fear hub,” it activates your “fight-or-flight” response to confront or escape from a dangerous situation. And though it’s involved in learning to fear an event, like touching a hot stove, it’s also triggered by learning not to fear, like overcoming a fear of spiders. If you lean toward heightened anxiety and depression, it’s likely your amygdala is highly active.
Neuroscientists have long studied this primitive structure that’s triggered by perceived danger. Humans have a negative bias, a tendency to focus on threats. Despite that, stunning new research shows that we can compensate by cultivating positive thoughts. The payoff? Not only will we be less likely to unravel when the negative happens, we’ll be more compassionate toward others.
Amazingly, psychologists William Cunningham at the University of Toronto and Alexander Todorov at Princeton University discovered a new amygdala that’s identified with human connection, compassion and happiness. Their study recorded MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) activity in participants’ amygdala while they viewed images that were either negative, positive, or neutral. Positive images also caused activity, contrary to what neuroscientists previously held true.
Another study measured spiked amygdala activity when participants were shown images of people pursuing a goal, and people in need of help. In the most primitive parts of our brain sits the instinct of compassion and empathy. Studies also prove our ability to help others increases our own experience of happiness, our sense of well being.
Clearly, when we feed our brain an enhanced diet of goals, and compassionate connection to others, we develop the knack to take the good with the bad. Let’s expand our own resilience through an active practice of kindness toward others.