Amygdala, Survival Tendency

Survival is about fear, aggression, instinct, and reaction. These survival tendencies work for the short lifespans of animals in savannahs, forests, and jungles. They don’t work in the sophisticated networks and lifespans of organizational cultures.

The survival tendencies are in all of us. They come from the part of our brain called the Amygdala.

Study.com gives this explanation:

“Definition and Function of the Amygdala. The amygdala is an almond-shaped section of nervous tissue located in the temporal (side) lobe of the brain … They are thought to be a part of the limbic system within the brain, which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory.”

When the amygdala is activated:

  • Rational thought goes out the window.
  • Short-sighted thinking prevails.
  • And relationships suffer.

Rationality Defeated: The Amygdala’s Primal Takeover

When faced with immediate danger, logic and reason often take a backseat. This phenomenon, captured in the phrase “rational thought goes out the window,” finds its root in the amygdala, our brain’s primitive alarm system. In the face of a perceived threat, the amygdala bypasses the analytical prefrontal cortex, triggering an immediate fight-or-flight response.

Emotions like fear and anger surge, taking over our decision-making processes. While this rapid reaction served us well in our evolutionary past, its knee-jerk nature can sometimes lead to rash actions and poor choices in modern situations.

Imagine being startled by a harmless car backfire – your heart races, you jump back, and rational thought takes a momentary pause. It’s only after the initial surge subsides that the prefrontal cortex reasserts itself, helping us understand the harmless nature of the event.

The Amygdala’s Tunnel Vision: Sacrificing the Future for Now

The Amygdala’s Tunnel Vision: Sacrificing the Future for Now
The amygdala’s reign extends beyond impulsive actions. Its focus on immediate threats can create a short-sighted thinking pattern, where long-term consequences are sacrificed at the altar of instant safety or gratification.

This is because the amygdala operates on a timescale of milliseconds, prioritizing survival above all else. When faced with a perceived threat, it triggers fight-or-flight responses without considering the bigger picture. Imagine being chased by a dog – your amygdala screams “run!”, prioritizing immediate escape over the potential of finding a safer route or assessing the dog’s true intentions.

This emphasis on the present can have detrimental effects in situations where long-term planning is crucial. For instance, someone experiencing chronic stress might prioritize unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse, offering temporary relief but hindering their ability to address the root cause of their stress.

The amygdala’s dominance in such situations can make it difficult to delay gratification and invest in long-term solutions that require sustained effort.

Recognizing this short-sighted tendency is crucial, as it allows us to consciously engage the prefrontal cortex, bringing reason and foresight back into the decision-making process. By understanding the amygdala’s limitations, we can learn to temper its immediate urges with a more comprehensive perspective, ensuring our choices serve not just our present needs but also our future well-being.

Overcoming the Survival Tendency

While essential for survival, understanding the amygdala’s influence on our rationality allows us to be more mindful of its triggers and work towards integrating its responses with well-considered thought.

Ultimately, the amygdala is responsible for the majority of problems that arise in school culture. The struggle is not against people. It’s not against a strategy. It’s not against a mandate.

It’s against our very nature that hides deep in the core of our brains – the amygdala.

Here are a few previous posts that focus on creating conditions where survival tendencies are not needed:

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PS – Today’s Mafost Mashup will feature an incredible interview with the author of the Better Leaders Better Schools Roadmap. This easy-to-read book is an essential guide to taking control of your Amygdala and executing strategic leadership and school improvement.


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  1. […] is not a conscious fault. It’s your brain on delay. It’s your amygdala doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. It’s seeking to protect […]