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9/12 and the Collective Amygdala

September 12, 2021
Why an attack like 9/11 is much less likely today than it was in 2001 - Vox

Yesterday we remembered one of the most significant dates in American history. Certainly the most significant date in my lifetime. September 11, 2001. If you’re in your 30s or older, you probably remember where you were and what you felt when two planes rammed into the Twin Towers, another crashed into the Pentagon, and the last of four planes crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3000 lives were lost in this national tragedy.

Everybody in my world was rocked that Tuesday morning. Work ground to a halt. Everything else became irrelevant. I don’t think I can overstate the drama and confusion of the days that followed.

Amidst the many horrible memories these days gave birth to, one good memory is how the nation – most of the world, actually – responded to the horrors of the attack. Thousands of men and women streamed in to New York City. All by some means other than on a jet plane, because every plane in the country was grounded. Thousands came, in spite of the challenges to get there, to be part of the efforts to rescue and care for victims of the attack. Millions of dollars were contributed almost over night toward the effort.

One other thing stands out in my memory of the weeks following 9/11/01. Churches filled. Not just for Sunday morning services, though they were far fuller then than before. They filled with people through the weekdays seeking a place to pray, to cry out to God from broken hearts for lost lives and and a very fearful future – seeking a sanctuary. The trauma drove us to God for comfort, if not for answers. A unique and powerful thing happened overnight.

A country that was full of confident, self-reliant, self-sufficient men and women going about their very busy and self-important lives ground to a full stop. We – all of us – stopped and refocused. We turned our hearts to the only One who could help us. In our collective panic, we sought God for comfort and help.

This, I believe, was a spiritual reaction that originated in our brains. This doesn’t mean it was less a spiritual reaction than merely a neural one. I think it happened in the Amygdala, a little place in our Limbic system that you might not even know you have.

The function of the Amygdala is to react in split-second speed to perceived threat. When activated, it takes over, and in a flash. This is a gift from God. He has designed and hard-wired our brains to be capable of reacting to threat in less than a second for the sake of our survival.

But the Amygdala doesn’t process the nature or level of threat. The part of our brain that does this is the Pre-Frontal Cortex, the part of the brain just behind your forehead. That part of your brain, your executive command center, is capable of processing the data coming in from your five senses and coming to a conclusion about the intensity and level of threat the Amygdala has fired off for.

Here’s the problem, though: the Amygdala hijacks your Pre-Frontal Cortex. It literally locks your thinking mind out, and then it’s all about your reactions, your survival instinct, not your responses. Your Amygdala puts the pedal to the metal for your instant reaction. You just need to fight or flee, or in some cases a generally fatal reaction, freeze. These are the only options.

Blah, blah, blah. So why am I writing about this brain stuff? Because in a figurative sense, we, as a country, have what I’ll call a “Collective Amygdala.” On September 11, 2001, the threat of very real and present danger set it off, and our panic kicked in as a reaction.

Not many of us could pick up arms and begin fighting the enemy who attacked us, though lots of us wanted to. Recruiting stations were quickly overrun by volunteers. But there wasn’t anything anybody could do about this attack, immediately. It took several days for the President, Congress and the Military to make a plan for responding decisively.

What the rest of us did when our Amygdala got activated was run to God. It was the only thing we knew to do. It was also the best thing we could do.

We cried out to God. We pleaded. We confessed our sins. We longed to draw our loved ones close. We were confronted by our mortality. In those days our hearts were open to God in ways they hadn’t been on September 10.

But my memory is that in about six weeks, churches were less and less crowded on Sunday. Attendance at prayer meetings fell off pretty dramatically.

Here’s the thing about your Amygdala. It eventually gets less stimulated. The Amygdala effect wans and wears off. In an individual, it can happen fairly quickly, in a few minutes even. When the Pre-Frontal Cortex finally gets behind the controls, it evaluates the actual threat level, and if not imminent, can assure the Limbic system that we’re not in imminent danger. Heart rate returns to normal. Blood pressure returns to normal.

This probably happened in some way to our collective Amygdala in those post 9/11 days. I think it may have happened to us as a nation. It took us a few weeks, but our emotional and spiritual blood pressure, along with our spiritual and emotional heart rate eventually returned to a kind of normal. We stopped holding our breath. We didn’t feel the urgency to get to church and call out to God. It started to feel like we’d be OK.

On the anniversary of 9/11 (pretty much all the anniversaries of it), we’re called to reflect on the event and the emotion connected to that day. We think about the grief and loss of the families who can now only visit the grave of their loved ones, if their bodies were recovered. We think about the national horror and feelings of helplessness. We’re think about the efforts and sacrifices of First Responders and civilians who rant to help, instead of running to get out of harm’s way Or we’re urged to.

On the 20th anniversary, it felt especially poignant to me. Did it to you? Lots of factors there, I guess. You’re no more spiritual than me if you were very deeply moved, and no less spiritual if you weren’t. Everybody’s different. But I’m thinking that for all of us, our Amygdala has long ago released our Pre-Frontal Cortex to think rationally. The cortisol and adrenalin has drained out of our system. We’re back to normal. What clinicians call stasis.

Still, though, the memory of the spike and the Amygdala effect is there. Or should be.

So what difference does any of this make? To me, it comes down to two primary things. If 9/11/01 didn’t remind you of the brevity of life, its uncertainty, its fragility, you weren’t paying attention. Because life is is brief, uncertain, fragile. None of us knows if we’ll be able to say, “I love you,” or “I’m sorry,” tomorrow.

The second thing, which I think flows from the first, is that control is an illusion. Even if your life is cruising along well and everything’s good, you’re not in control of the world. You’re really only a little bit in control of your life. You are absolutely NOT in control of the world. It’s a fact that we should organize our lives around, but generally don’t. It’s a fact that we push away and try to forget because it’s unpleasant and gets in our way.

If you have Facebook, you’ve probably seen the posts that say they wish we could get back to September 12, 2001. We can’t. I don’t want to have to go through September 11, 2001, to get there. Neither do you.

But I do want to set the two primary things I wrote about a couple of paragraphs ago squarely in my mind and heart, and not let the whirl of my life, and the distractions all around me push it away.

From → Marriage

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