Deep inside every human being’s brain is a tiny, almond-shaped structure called the “amygdala.” The amygdala is part of your brain’s limbic system, one of the oldest and most primitive reminders of our days as cold-blooded reptiles.
The amygdala does many things, but one of its primary jobs is triggering both fear and aggression — the “fight or flight” instinct. In instances of high stress or fear, it’s the amygdala that triggers the red haze, the killing aggression that sometimes follows. In those moments, all pretense of higher function, mammalian empathy falls away — you are never more of what you really are, on a basic, reptilian level, than in moments of sheer terror.
The amygdala is also the brain structure most associated with racism, and attitudes of hatred and fear toward “outsider” groups.
In the below video, we see an interesting example of how a particular Caucasian woman’s brain reacts when her amygdala takes over following a near-accident in which she was forced to swerve off the road. The driver of the other car, a “proud Muslim,” reportedly didn’t see her before trying to merge into her lane.
After the near miss, he pulls over to check on her, and uses his phone to record the incident. Legally smart…though most people would say, socially, not the brightest thing. In the video he apologizes profusely, telling the woman he didn’t see her.
The driver’s angry reaction is understandable…but what she says next is a fascinating example of what humans can become when higher functions fail, and (in a moment of fear) our brains betray the vicious reptile beneath.
Transcript (with notes by author):
WOMAN: “(indistinguishable)…I’m going to sue you for running me off the road, you god****ed sonofab***h!”
MAN: “Ma’am, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
WOMAN: “No, f**k you…if I had a gun I would shoot you DEAD! (snatches at the phone) Give me your God****ed phone, give me your phone, give me your God****ed phone!” (opens car door)
(The amygdala and associated neurocircuits are also associated with territoriality, and feelings of entitlement.)
WOMAN: “Give me your goya — I’m gonna kill your kids, and your mother. I’ve got people that’ll do it, you watch, you mother-son-of-a-b****. It’s the last, I’m gonna run you, I’m gonna god****ed run you, get out, get out — ” (Language use is one of the higher brain functions disabled by the triggering of the amygdala. Note sexual-replacement aggression toward offspring and parent…early indicator of “other” group recognition.)
MAN: “Ma’am, calm down. Please, calm down.”
WOMAN: “No, you calm down and learn how to God****ed drive you f***ing Muslim. I’m going to get out of here right now.” (Recognition of “other” group triggers secondary fear response and “flight” instinct. Typical response among xenophobes, homophobes and racists of most types.)
MAN: “Ma’am, please calm down. Relax, this is not neces –”
WOMAN: “Relax? RELAX?!” (Suggestion of dominance re-triggers aggression response)
MAN: “Ma’am, please, just relax –”
WOMAN: “Relax?! I been up your — you better open up your God***ed eyes and learn how to God***ed drive, you f***in’ Muslim. You are a Muslim, aren’t you?”
MAN: “Yes. Proud.”
WOMAN: “Oh, I God***ed knew it. You a**holes blow up school bus children you God****ed son of a n****r-loving son of an atheist b***h!” (Assignment of “Other” grouping, function of amygdala. Note territorial response.) “Get off of me!”
MAN: “I’m sorry for you, that you’re so full of hatred.” (Pity implies subordination)
WOMAN: “I’m full of hatred for people who are too God****ed stupid to know how to drive,.”
MAN: “Ma’am, it was an accident. An accident.”
WOMAN: “Yeah, it almost was.” (Amygdala responsible for retrieving memories.) “Get out there and let them run over you. Get out! Get out in the road and let them run over you!” (Opens car door. Aggression-dominance response.)
MAN: “Ma’am…God bless you. “
WOMAN: “Don’t bless me. You better watch your mama, you son-of-a-b****…watch your mama tomorrow morning, Son-of-a-B***.”
MAN: “My Mom passed away.”
WOMAN: “Oh…your…father? Your sister?” (Interesting questioning tone, indicates brain is attempting to engage higher functions associated with relationships. Momentary mammalian empathy that reptilian amygdala cannot comprehend. Note appearance of confusion.)
MAN: “My family passed away.”
WOMAN: “Yeah, right.” (Dismissive response used to halt cognitive dissonance between higher functions and amygdala. Territorial response.) “Get off of me. I can’t start my car. I’m too terrified.”
MAN: “Ma’am, please, just take a minute and calm down. Don’t be so full of hatred.
WOMAN: (Reptilian brain responds to suggestion of dominance) “You goddamned tell me — you almost killed me, you stupid-ass bastard! You stupid-ass bastard!” (Opens car door, aggression renewed. Sociopaths will also often respond to the emotion of empathy with aggression, though in this case it’s most likely due to the amygdala’s retrieval of the memory of the near-death incident.)
Woman gets out of car, and charges at the man on the roadside.
WOMAN: “I’m gonna God****ed KILL you! I’m gonna God****ed kill you!”
MAN: “Lady, are you crazy?” (Woman turns around and goes back to car.) Have you lost your mind?“
WOMAN: “I’m gonna God****ed kill you. I’m gonna God****ed run over you!” (Revs car engine, takes off, swerving near man before accelerating away.)
And that’s how a mammal becomes a reptile…through fear. Fear exposes us, reveals us for what we truly are when all pretenses of civility are wiped away. And underneath, humans are the same thing they’ve always been…reptiles, one moment of fear away from striking.