Barking emanated from the direction of the balcony of my condo. I was in the master bathroom getting ready for the day. As I sometimes do, I had opened the sliding glass door from the master bedroom to the balcony so that my two dogs could survey their little queendom. From their perch on the second floor and in the center of the building, they can monitor the entire length of the courtyard below them. They were doing their job, warning me that a potential intruder could be threatening the safety of the den, in this case another resident and his dog who were strolling around the courtyard.
In this situation, I have some options. I can ignore the barking, which will prolong it because the dogs want me to get the message and respond by assessing for danger. I can loudly reprimand the dogs, which will prolong the barking because the dogs will think I am barking, too, confirming their suspicions of danger. I can calmly walk onto the balcony, let the dogs see me visually check the vicinity, tell them in a soothing voice that everything is alright, and thank them for doing their job so well. This last option usually gets the results I most want, quiet dogs that feel satisfied their message has been received and appreciated.
It occurred to me that this interaction is like the mind. The brain has a watchdog, the amygdala, an almond-shaped bundle of nervous tissue. There are normally two amygdalae in a human brain, one on each side. This image illustrates their location.
The amygdala is involved in emotions, the survival instincts (fight-or-flight response), and memory. Like a watchdog, the amygdala scans for danger and sounds the alarm.
The brain also has a version of me in this scenario, the prefrontal cortex, which is in the very front of the brain, behind the forehead.
The prefrontal cortex is like a conductor, leading the other parts of the brain to play in harmony. It is in charge of abstract thinking and thought analysis. It also regulates behavior by mediating conflicting thoughts, making choices between right and wrong, predicting the probable outcomes of actions or events, and suppressing emotional or sexual urges.
Like my dogs, the amygdala treats any perceived threat as an actual threat. It does not differentiate. That is not its job. Its job is to prepare me to take action against the threat. Like me responding to the dogs’ barking by investigating the perceived threat, the prefrontal cortex responds to the amygdala by assessing the situation and determining whether their is actual danger or whether everything is alright.
Ideally, the system works like this; the senses receive information about the environment, send the information to the brain, the amygdala responds to any stimuli that could indicate threat and forwards the information to the prefrontal cortex, where an executive decision is made. Oftentimes, however, the amygdala highjacks the process and does not send the information to the prefrontal cortex. This is when we get chronic stress, anxiety (worry), panic, and a defensive attitude. It is like the first option I mentioned earlier, with me not responding to the dogs. If I let them go on, my dogs will continue to sound the alarm until I acknowledge the message. That is what dogs do, just like the amygdala. If I take the second option, reprimanding, then I go along with the amygdala’s instinctive response and create more barking. This gets me the same results as the first option. The third option addresses the situation most efficiently. I can determine whether there is a threat and either allow the dogs to take action or reassure the dogs into settling down. This is like the prefrontal cortex conducting the functions of the amygdala. Option three is desirable, but it requires that I make an effort and act with intention. How do I improve the chances of my acknowledging the dogs, dismissing their fears when they are unfounded, and returning the situation to equilibrium?
Mindfulness can greatly improve the brain’s coordination of this process. By “mindfulness,” I mean the practice of meditation, or focusing attention on an object (often the breath), noticing when the attention has wandered, and directing the attention back to the object gently and without judgment. Wandering and thinking is what the mind does. By disciplining the mind’s activity through mindfulness, one can transform the information highways in the brain. The brain has the amazing ability to re-wire itself. The practice of mindfulness creates new pathways for information to travel and reduces use of the pathways that produce chronic stress, anxiety, etc. It allows the conductor to do its job and keeps the watchdog from trying to run the show. I still have the option of taking action to survive, should the situation actually call for it. The thing is, most of us rarely encounter actual life-threatening situations on a daily basis. Skillful responding regulates the whole system and reduces stress. The dogs might be barking, but that does not mean there are barbarians at the gate.