The amygdala is such a small part of the brain, and yet it plays such a huge role in our ability to function optimally. I was recently at the National Middle Levels Conference in Portland and had the opportunity to hear Shauna King, from UpsideDown Organization, talk about the brain science behind bullying. She talked a lot about the amygdala, and she wisely compared it to a palace guard. I had never heard this comparison drawn; however, it made perfect sense. Like the palace guard, the amygdala’s job is to protect above all else. Information and emotions need to get past the palace guard to get to other parts of the brain. If the palace guard deems it safe or pleasurable, the information is let in. If the palace guard feels it is too dangerous, it will stop information at the gate and prevent it from moving on. Put the palace guard on a state of constant high alert and it is no longer distinguishing between real threats and perceived threats. The gates are closed and nothing is getting by. In addition, you can also send the palace guard into fight, flight, or freeze mode. When you get to this state, your palace guard, or your amygdala, has taken over but at the expense of the frontal lobes where learning, critical thinking, problem solving, and focus take place.
If you have ever had an opportunity to visit London and see the palace guards in action, you will know they lack all emotion. On a past trip to London, I remember watching a child frantically waving his hands and trying to get the attention of one of the guards. I also remember the look of confusion on the face of the child when he was met with no response. This is where the amygdala and the palace guard differ. The amygdala remembers the emotions behind memories.
Take a moment to think about a happy memory. If you are like many of the students and adults I teach, you will find yourself starting to smile and will feel a certain sense of happiness. Your brain has encoded the emotion behind that memory. In the same way you felt happiness at remembering a joyful memory, you also encode the emotions behind memories that are not so happy. In children, the memory may be distant, or even gone, but the emotion behind the memory is still there. For example, a couple of years ago, I had a student who came from a family that was less than kind to him. When another student teased him, he flew into a rage I had never seen in him before. Once he was calm, I asked what had happened. He started by telling me he didn’t know but, as he talked, he related the issue in the class to similar teasing at home by a parent. When the student teased him, he didn’t think about his parent or the teasing that had taken place years ago, instead, his amygdala kicked in and sent him into “fight” mode without him even being aware. The challenging part is that the amygdala is often the dominant part of a child’s brain and “taming it” requires practice.
Students who practice mindful awareness are training the brain to slow down and process sensory data. One of the best ways to practice mindful awareness is through deep belly breathing, or brain breaks, as they are called in the MindUP program. Focusing on the breath helps calm the body by slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and sharpening focus. When children pay attention to their breath, they are also supporting the strong functioning that takes place in the frontal lobes or prefrontal cortex. Controlled breathing also calms the body and mind and decreases the anxiety that sends our amygdala into flight, fight, or freeze mode. This practice primes the brain to be more reflective and less reactive. Over time, this strengthens neural pathways and connections and mindful awareness moves from being a state to a long-term trait.
For an excellent video on the connection between the brain and deep breathing, check out this fantastic Dan Siegel Video.