Monday 1 May 2023

Calming the Amygdala

I have been engaging with Shirzad Chamine's work (Positive Intelligence) over the last fortnight, with real interest. And it occurred to me that a common thread with many of the other approaches that I am interested in, was this idea of calming the Amygdala. That, if I understand correctly, is what Chamine's work is predicated on.

Professor Paul Brown (who wrote Neuropsychology for Coaches, for example) suggested to Nancy Kline that her approach worked so well (more reliably, in his view than many therapeutic approaches) because it calmed the amygdala: a phrase that has stayed with me since Nancy quoted him on the topic.

The amygdala, it seems, is that part of the brain that scans the horizon for threat, and if any is detected, initiates our fight or flight response. 

Of course, many of the threats it now identifies are not of the sabre-toothed tiger about to jump on you type, but our neural response is the same. Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence, writes of the amygdala hijack: when our emotional response is rapid overwhelming and disproportionate.

So calming that - so that we are not overwhelmed and prompted to respond in a reactive way - is valuable. Viktor Frankl famously wrote: 'Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.' 

Stephen Covey, in his famous 7 Habits, suggests that the skill of proactivity includes creating a gap between stimulus and response, precisely in order to choose one's response.

And practices such as meditation are designed (inter alia) to help us to develop the discipline of focusing our mind on what we want to focus on, not on all the things that clamour for its attention.

One of the ways we attempt to do this is to strengthen alternative neural pathways to the disruptive ones of our habitual automatic responses. That is what visualisation seeks to do; also Chamine's PQ Reps, Affirmations, and the Enrich the Plot phase of my own Shifting Stories approach.  And this, I think, is what Peter Bluckert is getting at (in Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching)  when he says a core coaching competency is increasing psychological muscle.


There's an old joke about someone who was lost in South Kensington, trying to go to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. He saw someone coming out of the Royal College of Music, carrying a violin case, so assumed that she would know the way. So he asked her: How do you get to the Albert Hall?

'Practice!' she replied.

And the same is true, of course, of calming the amygdala.

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