17. Understanding the Mechanics of Your Emotional Brain
This is the third of a three-part blog series about the Individual in Marriage. Each blog covers how each individual in a partnership contributes to the relationship and changes as a result of the direction that the relationship provides. In this piece we’ll understand the mechanics of the brain.
Your mind does not exist. It is an experiential construct created based on the workings of your brain. Therefore you can envision your mind any way you choose…
And having a clearer understanding of how the brain works can help with that.
Many of us are familiar with the concept of the right side of the brain handling more creative thoughts whereas the left side handles more logical thoughts; the middle of the brain is where we find the Limbic system. This is the area of the brain that controls emotions.
In the middle of the Limbic system, we can find the Amygdala. If the Amygdala were a person with a job, their job is to always be scanning for problems and danger. As soon as something comes up that might be danger, the Amygdala pulls the “fight or flight” switch.
For example, if you’re walking through the forest and see a snake, your eyes transmit the visual data to the Thalamus and then that information goes to two more places:
The Amygdala, which recognizes the danger and triggers fight or flight response
And the occipital lobe, where the visual data of the snake is analyzed in your vision center of the brain (this is a slower process.)
Even though your Amygdala is so much faster at recognizing potential danger, it often lacks accuracy and pulls the fight or flight switch too soon. But your occipital lobe can catch up rather quickly. This is why a split second after you jump back from seeing the snake, your occipital lobe can check in and say “nope, not a snake just a tree branch.” And then you will begin to calm down.
The Amygdala Sees Danger, Not Logic
The Amygdala and the Limbic system have the ability to override the logic of the brain. Let’s say you come outside and see a child in the middle of the street with a car heading straight for him. The next thing you know you are across the street holding the child in your arms. You don’t remember deciding to save the child’s life, you may not even remember doing it. Your limbic system saw the life and death situation and turned off your frontal lobe not allowing you to think.
Unfortunately, the Amygdala can’t tell the difference between a speeding car and a wife who seems to be bossy.This is why people become overly emotional and what we call “reactive.”
Manny grew up with what he described as a controlling mother. In order for Manny to do anything she would need to approve of it first. If he wanted to go out his mother needed to know where he was going, when he would be back, and with whom he would be with. As Manny grew older he needed to fight for independence.
When Manny was 26 he met Sheila. He was attracted to her because she was so caring and thoughtful. They began dating and Sheila began doting on him by baking him his favorite cookies and by making sure he had nice meals for dinner. Then they married.
They had been married for only a month when Manny was watching a football game and Sheila said, “Come on Manny, it's getting late, let's go to sleep.” Without thinking anything of it, before Manny could answer, she picked up the remote and turned off the TV. The fight that ensued was terrible for both of them. Neither of them ever thought they would have screaming, yelling or cursing in their relationship, never mind a month after their wedding.
The suit of armor we spoke about in the previous blog is actually the Amygdala trained to look out for certain dangers.
A strong Amygdala also helps us avoid emotional dangers, and it plays a vital part in our development throughout our lives. It can come in handy when your Amygdala helps you avoid someone who makes you feel negative emotions, but it can also be a hindrance when it gives you a bad reading. After all, a wife turning off the TV can appear to be controlling the same way the branch seems to be a snake.
Work With Your Brain, Not Against It
Our job is to know that our emotions are often based on inaccurate perceptions of the Amygdala. While we are aware of our feelings we are better equipped to prevent the Amygdala from making us say or do something we will later regret. This is why we need to constantly double-check is this a tree branch, or is it a snake?
What’s the best way to practice? It’s hard to do it on your own, which is why therapy can help equip you with the right tools, show you how to use them, and then help you stay on track by giving you constant support and updates. But on your own, be sure to master the following three steps:
1. Being aware of your emotions and what the Amygdala is telling you.
2. Accept that it's understandable for us to feel the way we do.
3. Choose your behavior despite what the Amygdala is saying--do what's best for you and your relationship.