The Amygdala as Gatekeeper

Yesterday in class, before a quiz, I told one of my classes the story of the Amygdala, which I heard with my friend Dave Gray at a conference about the brain in learning.  I also found this story late last night (when I was coughing uncontrollably — the sinus infection trying to find a way out of this fortress-prison of my body), about how highly intelligent people often have social anxiety, which appears to be related to the Amygdala.

Dave did a highly intelligent drawing of the process, which I tried to reproduce then, but can’t possibly try to recreate now — maybe he’ll post a link to it in the comments if it’s in his Flickr feed (hint, hint) — but in essence it works like this:

Much of the sensorium of the brain gets fed through the amygdala after a kind of pre-processing.  The amygdala, which is a section of the brain located at roughly equal distance from most of the major parts, looks at this data from all of the body’s sensory apparatus, and asks two questions: “Am I really safe?” and “Am I in danger?”  It asks these questions more or less constantly, but perks up about every six or seven minutes to do a really detailed analysis. If the answer to the first question is yes, then the brain relaxes a bit, and the amygdala allows a flow of hormones and neurotransmitters to work on the fore-brain — the part that controls learning and most other higher-brain functions.  If the answer to the first question is no, the second question seems to come to the amygdala’s attention far more seriously, and the flood of neurotransmitters and hormones go to the back-brain: the part that controls reactions and learned behaviors.  If the amygdala decides it’s genuinely in danger, the adrenalin starts pumping and the fight-or-flight response engages.

So, I may not be remembering this at all accurately, because it was years ago when I was teaching at a very different school under radically different circumstances, and my life was a lot different, too.  But that’s what I remember of the amygdala lesson — that when the amygdala is relaxed and happy, we can learn, and learn well enough to store both data and procedure in long-term memory.  When the amygdala isn’t relaxed and happy, we can only rely on trained responses, because we can’t actually invent new processes in that moment, because that program of the bran-computer has been “force-quit.”

What the WSJ article says, basically, is that smart (introverted?) people clam up in social situations, and their amygdala is in this in-between state, where this piece of the lizard-brain isn’t relaxed and happy, but also isn’t truly in flight-or-fight mode.  Social situations, in other words, for very smart people, are (correctly?) perceived as potentially life-threatening but not yet warranting outright fight-or-flight…

but that means they’re certainly not learning opportunities.

What have you done today to make your classroom relaxed and happy for everyone?  It’s not just that the “unhappy kids in the back” WANT to be unhappy, you know, or that they don’t want to learn.  It’s that they feel uncertain whether this place and these people around them are a threat to survival.  The Amygdala is telling their brains to turn off the openness to learning — that’s biologically expensive; muster the energy for fight-or-flight, conserve data-processing power.  

Data unclear today. Try again tomorrow.

7 comments

  1. […] we’re going to have to do a better job of serving students and their families, because if kids are unhappy in school (particularly of their teachers) they’re not going to learn; the amygdala will see to it that the learning structures in their brains are turned off.  Only, […]

    • It’s not, but thank you for looking. You may recall that I hand-drew a copy of it, because we sat next to one another at a presentation in August 2008, at “Learning and the Brain” where you presented to CAIS at Avon Old Farms School.

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