I am America’s amygdala. I reside in the temporal lobe of the human brain, near the hippocampus. There are two of me in each normal human brain, and we are both shaped like an almond, after which we are named. I am part of the limbic system. At the risk of oversimplifying things (which, by nature, I do not mind doing), I will tell you that I am the part of your brain which deals most directly with the production and processing of fear. I am in charge of America at the moment, and have been for some time.
I am near the hippocampus for a reason. The hippocampus is primarily involved in memory storage. My job is to make sure that fearful things are lodged ‘deeper’ in your memory that other events. I make sure that when something is scary that you remember it. If I am artificially stimulated by electrodes, the person in whom I reside typically experiences sudden fear or dread.
When I am damaged, my person often becomes unable to recognize fear in other people. I am part of the limbic system, which among other things processes pleasure and fear. We help regulate the endocrine system which floods the body with various compounds that can raise heart rates, make breathing more shallow, and create a tingling sensation by moving blood away from the outside of the skin to minimize bleeding in case of a physical fight.
Some evolutionary biologists call us the ‘lizard brain’ because our portion of the human brain has certain similarities with lower life forms, which depend upon fight or flight responses to danger and do not have the capacity to process logically. Ancient philosophers called our functions passions, because what we do tends to render higher functions of the soul passive before our ability to override them.
The word ‘passions’ has gone from something that was almost always regarded as dangerous to a word which is now almost always regarded as something admirable: this change shows just how much in charge we’ve become. Ancient peoples tended to locate us, that is the structures which make up the limbic system, in the stomach, because the hormonal responses we trigger divert resources away from the digestive system, which is not critical in an emergency, towards the muscles used to attack or run away.
I cannot tell the difference on my own between a physical fight and a non-physical one, nor between real dangers and perceived dangers: Grizzly bears, zombies, economic collapses, new ice ages, overheated earth scenarios, police states, famines, killer bees, missing bees, spelling bees, job losses…they are all the same to me.
If you desire to control the person in whom I reside, I and the rest of the limbic system are your single best allies.
Under the right circumstances we have the ability to override what are typically called ‘higher brain’ functions such as reason and critical thinking. In the 20th century, some humans became very, very adept at stimulating me. Typically they would warn me about the dangers of: people of different races and people of different classes or sometimes of just too many people in general. I was told that if more people came into the world, eventually we would all starve. I was told that rich people would take all the money and that eventually we would not have any, and then we would starve. I was told that Jewish, Asian, Slavic and black people were multiplying too fast and would take control of America and we, like the rest of the world would starve .
The same people who became very good at manipulating me, also tended to be very good at stimulating some of the other parts of the limbic system, such as pleasure centers. The men who told us that if we did not obey them that we would be subject to the dangers of poverty, starvation, racial annihilation and economic oppression, did so in ways which communicated virility and confidence.
They had the right kind of features according to the fashions of the times and places of the various amygdalae in the various limbic systems in the various brains of the populations to which they were speaking: jutting chins, manly moustaches. Sometime of them wore garish military regalia festooned with patches, some wore camouflage, some wore Armani, some wore tribal garb, some wore peasant garb, some wore nothing above the waist preferring to appear shirtless in photographs. Some were blue eyed and pale skinned.
Some were very dark skinned. Some had Roman noses. Some were mixed race. Each conformed themselves to the image of virility and power appropriate to the time and place.
We, the limbic system, secreted pleasure when they spoke. We secreted compounds which conditioned our people to believe that they would also be virile and be able to have sex with whomever we wanted and pass on our genetic material. Often beautiful women or handsome men would be associated with these messages, enhancing the ability of the hippocampus to deeply store memories of the political and commercial messages which plucked the neurological strings of our limbic systems. Music intensified the experiences of pleasure at seeing the great ones, or fear and loathing at those who resisted them.
One of my greatest friends has been Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, and father of the art of public relations. Although neither he nor his uncle knew of our existence as structures of the brain, they both were very knowledgeable regarding our functions in what they called the “id.” Bernays and his colleagues believed that ordinary people were mostly governed by us, and that there was nothing in ordinary people which could reliably overrule our impulses, so they came to the conclusion that they, the few who were not governed by us, would use our fear and pleasure centers to rule the rest of the people through the use of images and slogans.
They were right about the ability to use us to influence large masses of Americans. But they were wrong in their belief that we did not also rule them. They too, reacted to fear and lusts, but just to different fears and lusts than most people. They were motivated by the lust to dominate other people and the fear of being ordinary.
I do not make subtle distinctions between dangers. I can be stimulated by opposite fears, such as too much or too little freedom, or global warming or cooling, or too many wars or too few. This is because things like contradictions are processed in other parts of the brain.
My potency can be diminished over time, as the compounds which are released under my direction can also diminish in effect over time. Adrenaline is one of my chief effects, but over time adrenaline becomes less and less potent in its effects. One of the ancient sages told a story about this having to do with a boy and a wolf.
I tend to be subjected, at least in America, to cycles of hyper stimulation on the last year of every four year cycle. This year is the last year in one of those four year cycles.
I am not designed to be in charge for more than very short spans of time, but I nevertheless I have been. I am not the part of human cognition which decides whether I will be in charge. Higher brain functions such as moral reasoning, logic, and critical thinking can, with some difficulty override me. So far, this year, they have not done so.
Mr. Bowyer is the author of "The Free Market Capitalists Survival Guide," published by HarperCollins, and a columnist for Forbes.com. The article orginally appeared on Forbes.com