Years ago I was hiking in the hills around my hometown in Southern California. Prior to the hike we were warned to be wary of rattlesnakes. The day was hot, the sun was omnipresent, and my thalamus was on alert. The thalamus is located in the midbrain (a.k.a. the reptilian brain) and it takes in everything within my circle of view.
We were enjoying the day, the smell of dried vegetation, the cracking of sticks under our boots, and the carefree feeling of being in nature without a care in the world. My tranquility was violated when my buddy walking behind me let out a yelp, threw a crooked stick a few feet from my feet and cried “rattler!”
In that moment I heard the hissing sound of a rattlesnake, my heart surged, I jumped vertically about 4 feet, apexed, hit the thrusters and while still airborne, moved laterally another 3.5 feet out of striking distance from the rattlesnake. When I landed, my face was white, my heart was racing, my muscles were flexed, and I was livid as my buddy fell over belly laughing.
There was no rattlesnake. His dark side hatched a plan along the trail to observe my reptilian system in action and research the effects of the thalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala on a 13-year-old body.
The research data was logged and since the results are reproducible, the science has moved into the theory category and is now the subject of many projects and experiments. In fact, the same process I experienced with the fake rattlesnake happens each time I lose my temper or act out in such a way that my rational brain is bypassed and excluded from the decision-making process.
As mentioned, the thalamus is the all-seeing eye and takes in every sound, smell, movement, feeling, and taste. The data are then split and half is transferred to the hippocampus that stores everything without bias. No emotion, just pictures. The remaining half of the data is sent to the amygdala complete with all the emotions associated with the pictures.
Simultaneously, the same information in transferred in full felicity with Dolby Surround Sound and HD clarity to the neocortex for analysis and rational thought. It takes 24 milliseconds to travel from the thalamus to the neocortex. While that seems fast, it takes 12 milliseconds for the amygdala to receive the data.
The amygdala doesn’t need all the information to determine danger signals and register fight or flight messages. However, in our emotional life with loved ones and co-workers, this process can have disastrous consequences, since it means we could, figuratively speaking, spring away from the wrong person or situation without the rational side of us being notified.
Consider the waitress who drops a tray of 6 glasses of water as she catches a glimpse of a redheaded woman who has a striking resemblance to the tart her ex-husband cheated with.
Before her rational brain could engage and determine it was only a resemblance, the amygdala had done the damage. Any wonder so little insight goes into explosive relationships or passive aggressive behaviors at work?
Recent work on the brain brings hope that each of us can retrain our cranial pathways. When my buddy tried his trick again later that day, I barely flinched. After my levitation experience, I had an in-depth discussion with my amygdala and explained that gnarly sticks thrown by my former friend only resemble rattlesnakes and they do not hiss, rattle, or bite.