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It's Getting Hot in Here

08/19/2010 05:20 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The amygdala is the ancient part of our brain. It's known as the "lizard brain" and often called the "Seat of Fear." It carries centuries of animal instinct in our DNA and triggers emotional arousal.

Animals move to higher ground before a tsunami. This intuition has been overpowered in humans by the sudden arrival of the prefrontal cortex in human evolution.

Lately, we've been uneasy. Amygdalas are confused and our temperature is on the rise. "Will I eat or be eaten" has escalated to "will I blow, or be blown up?"

Reaction to fear causes rapid heartbeat. Inflammatory hormones pump into the bloodstream. Then there's no turning back. It's fight or flight.

Knowing our brains can help us thrive in a World Under Construction. We've heard about the home remodel that ended in divorce, or road rage that ended a life.

Hans Selye's classic "The Stress of Life," cautions we risk chronic exhaustion from an overactive amygdala. Is this an emergency, or am I just amped-up on hormones?

Recently, flight attendant Steven Slater just couldn't take his passenger's amygdalas anymore. Making full use of his, he quit his job by ejecting himself from the plane down the inflatable emergency chute. Can we train our amygdalas to chill out?

Spencer Lord, author of "The Brain Mechanic," thinks so. Three parts of the brain influence behavior -- the prefrontal cortex, cingulate gyrus and amygdala. Lord uses Cognitive Brain Therapy to whip his irrational "lizard brain" into submission with his rational prefrontal cortex. His cingulate gyrus acts like a switch-gear to change his thought into appropriate social behavior. Lord doesn't tolerate a broken-record amygdala. He grabs fear and blasts it with his prefrontal cortex.

Arianna Huffington doesn't take prisoners either. She refuses to sacrifice creative genius to appease other amygdalas. Her book, "Becoming Fearless," was reviewed as "encouraging, if not particularly inspiring." Fear isn't inspirational. It's serious business, but encouragement during the battle helps.

Stock Market investing isn't inspirational either. Terry Burnham, in "Mean Markets and Lizard Brains," describes the pitfalls of caving into our amygdala. Fear can cost us.

Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist, has a softer approach. At the TED Conference, she described 20 minutes of her life while having a brain stroke. Fully recovered, Bolte-Taylor's moving presentation gives us hope. We can transform fear into profound insight.

She makes friends with fear, like monsters in the night. "Send loving thoughts to your amygdala".

Travel writer Doug Lansky likes the Titanic Awards, given for the worst "Vacations from Hell." He hears an equal number of stories from travelers who went with the flow after it turned upside-down. His advice? "It's best to follow your own adventure."

One's own adventure is defined by our thoughts. In a tiger preserve, with killer bees in hot pursuit, I was chased up a tree by a killer Rhino. As it sniffed at my feet, snorting loud enough to wake a small country, my thoughts shifted. I was fascinated by this amazing animal. Then it turned around, walked away, and the bees were gone.

Vanessa Woods studies Bonobo primates. They share their food and don't spoil for a fight. But she doesn't give all the credit for their altruism to unfettered sex. Rather, "They don't wake up with the fear of survival."

Elizabeth Gilbert's marriage hit the rocks. Making lemonade, she decided to follow her own adventure, and hit the road. She wrote about it in "Eat, Pray, Love", which is now a feature film.
After the book's success, fans blindsided her with "Aren't you afraid you'll never top the 'freakish success' of your last book?" Gilbert had to create a "psychological protective construct" to deflect the fear being projected on her.

She started researching other societies that had "better and saner ways." It led her to Greece, Rome and Africa. "People didn't believe creativity came from humans, but from Deities that spoke wisdom to them from afar" she tells us. Romans viewed genius as "an invisible force that protected them from their own work." African dance performers "stepped through a portal, on fire with Divinity."

When the Western world adopted the movement of Rationalism, humans became "the Center of the Universe", Gilbert says. The prefrontal cortex was now on a roll, but the burden of generating one's own genius had a downside. Gilbert discovered many geniuses were so traumatized by performance anxiety, their amygdalas insisted on suicide.

Chin-Ning Chu's excellent book "Do Less, Achieve More," tells us not to take it so seriously, and relax a little. Our inspiration will come.

Tom Waite hears fragments of melody. He wants to capture and record it, but he's driving. Knowing he could lose the melody forever, he just looks at the sky and tells the music to come back later.

Waite conquered fear by "taking the genie out of me and returning it back to where it came from" until he was ready to receive. Then his creativity returned.

Elizabeth Gilbert tried Waite's approach, and it worked. She told her unscheduled creativity "Writing is my job. I showed up today. I don't care if I miss out on genius or not, come back later".

Sue Diaz writes about her son's service in Iraq in "Minefields of the Heart." She coped by putting her fear "in a box" and cleaning the kitchen. Her son told himself "life will always there."
What I find interesting about these stories is the fearless belief in limitless supply. Fear steals our self-confidence. We buy into it, feel vulnerable, and involuntarily project it. Amanda, featured in the child trafficking documentary "Playground," walked away from "the life" by being "stronger than my fear."

I'm in the middle of writing this. My amygdala's driving me crazy. I'm into a dozen drafts. The flow won't come and it's two a.m. I resort to the mindlessness of TV. Five minutes in, I stumble over an infomercial, as Lucinda Bassett pitches the Midwest Center for Cognitive Brain Therapy. I listen to a dozen testimonials from recovered amygdala sufferers.

The next day, I read "The Brain Mechanic" again. I get serious about taking my brain to the gym. Lord reassures "You're not an idiot. You probably just got incomplete instructions. Science and faith co-exist... "

On NPR's "This American Life," the topic is Superheroes and Invisibility. "Zora" is a fearless globe-trotting sleuth with over-the-top gutsy stories. Later, her interviewer visits her home, and discovers shelves full of self-esteem books.

Humorist John Hodgeman, author of "The Areas of my Expertise," comments on fearless flying vs. being invisible. "To fly is to know who you hope to be. To be invisible is to fear who you really are."

Reading about training your amygdala is the easy part. After that, keep the faith and do the heavy lifting. The only way to change your travel experience is to give your thoughts a good workout.