Reigning in the Amygdala

Terms and labels incite reactions, often alarmist ones. When I utter the terms consumerism and materialism, the immediate reaction of many, other than tuning out and scanning for the nearest exit, is surprisingly not entirely negative. On the other hand, if I mention the terms frugal and minimalism the instant reaction is often negative as those terms imply that a sacrifice is required.

The Reactive Amygdala

These reactions are not visceral; they are mental. They originate from a structure in the brain called the amygdala. Its responsibility is to react quickly and instinctively and is most useful in flight or fight situations. It is the quick responder, whereas the intellect, meticulously processes all situational information. It then ruminates, and then prepares a well-informed response including a bullet point action plan, explanatory notes, reference, and glossary, and then faxes it to you in carbon copy triplicate for appropriate action.


The amygdala is often correct, but not always. It reacts based not on a full assessment of the situation at hand, but rather, takes a quick glance, and then as per its job description, draws on historical and sometimes genetic behavioural responses for guidance.

The Brainwashed Amygdala

So why does your amygdala, upon hearing the terms consumerism and materialism, advise you to disengage? And why does it tell you to put up a blockage or freak out when someone talks about being frugal or living with minimalism? It’s because the amygdala can be programmed intentionally as much as by genetics and history. Beware, your amygdala is a double agent. That’s right, that sneaky little gang of nuclei in the centre of your brain has been turned by the persuasive and repetitive message of pro-consumerism forces. They train it through constant amygdala-washing to think that indulgence is good for you and any kind of reduction, minimalism or frugal behaviour is self-oppression.

The amygdala, after so long working as a turncoat actually thinks that if we stop focussing on stuff, we will need to make sacrifices. It worries about the demise of consumerism and the growth-driven economy because of all the conveniences and nice stuff we will have to do without.


In this case, the amygdala is incorrect, as it sometimes is, and we need to turn for guidance, to elements and agents that are on our side, such as the intellect. The intellect will tell us that not only is there no self-deprivation associated with frugality and minimalism, but the exact opposite is instead true. There is sacrifice associated with consumerism and materialism. That’s how twisted our amygdalae have become.

Intellectual Conclusions

In the absence of the amygdala, who has now slinked away into the shadows out of embarrassment, I can expand on the two conclusions I have drawn from my briefings and cross-examinations of various intellectual sources.

Firstly, a frugal minimalist favours experiences over things. As such, he tends to need less money, and consequently less work. Such a person has more time and energy to devote to the things that make him happy like the quality of his relationships, time with your children, time spent in nature and on your health, creative pursuits or perhaps just loafing about in a hammock and watching the rain. This is not self-deprivation.

The second is that more is not always better. Take leprosy, flatulence, and cellulite for example. Nor does consumerism and the pursuit of more, be it money or stuff, make us happy. It has us spending most of our lives at work to pay for and maintain stuff, sacrificing the time we would have had for the things that do in fact make us happy. This is self-deprivation.

We Must Encourage the Intellect

Once upon a time, sacrificing our time by going to work to make some money to orient ourselves more towards the enjoyment of life was the intent of both your reactionary amygdala and your patient and thoughtful intellect. These days though, the amygdala, hijacked by forces of the pervasive economic paradigm of consumerism, continues to drive us to work to fund endless and often pointless consumerism, but has lost sight of for what that sacrifice was originally intended.

The amygdala has sold you out and taken over. We must awaken the intellect, and encourage it to not only stand up to the amygdala’s deception but in so doing repatriate, re-educate and realign their intentions.

The Interview

Following is a transcript of a recent interview with an intellect. It exposes the divergence between views of the intellect and the actions of the amygdala. It was faxed by an anonymous source to my office, in carbon copy triplicate, as per standard procedure. The transcriber has made situational notes where they were deemed relevant to the context and refers to the interviewing agent, as simply Z.

Z: Thanks for your time Intellect, please, take a seat. Coffee? Cigarette?

The agent lights up a Marlboro and skims the packet across the desk.

Intellect: Hardly intelligent. No thanks.

Z: Fair enough. Ok, so you know why you’re here. You’ve been briefed?

Intellect: You know I know. You briefed me. Amygdala has been caught up in some unsavoury business. He’s been dealing in untruths, peddling lies, working for disturbing forces.

Z: Yes, I know you know I know, I just needed you to clarify for the record, for the tape. Ok. Yes, that’s right, and we need to interview you. You are quite close to him, cranially speaking, you both share the same host, and we need you to thoughtfully set the record straight. The first matter we need to clarify. Amygdala has been calling you, and other intellects for that matter, consumers…

The intellect reels and coughs before the agent can finish.

Intellect: Stop right there. I am insulted. What happened to citizen? Am I not a person, well, you know what I mean, I’m in a person? Dammit, I am a person. Even Amygdala would have told you so, before he started listening to that other lot. We used to identify, express and measure ourselves by who we are, by our nature, by our civility. We had connections, responsibilities, and obligations to our fellow citizens and our communities. But these days we have become and are now referred to as consumers, we are even called that by our own representatives in the gilded halls of government. We identify, express and measure ourselves through the owning of stuff, the consumer goods we display, the size of our wardrobe, the job we have, the car we drive, and the suburb we live in. If only I could react fast enough. This is all Amygdala’s work I tell you, I …

Z: Calm down, calm down. Try to stay balanced. For the tape.

Intellect: Sorry. I just find this whole business very derogatory because being known and referred to as a consumer plays down the importance of the human character.

Z: I see. A pause. What do you make of identifying yourself with all this stuff you talk of. Amygdala has been banging on about self-confidence and

Intellect: Dammit! If I’ve told him once, I’ve told him a million times. Why can’t he see reason? So long as we use stuff to identify and express ourselves, we are convincing ourselves that this contributes to our self-confidence and we end up relying on it for such.

Z: Ok. U huh. So…

Intellect: So, it’s is a leaky boat, despite the shiny façade, because all things, all stuff, depreciates, falls apart or wears out. So, our purported self-confidence is on shaky ground because it is attached to shaky stuff. It’s not genuine self-confidence.

Z: Okay. Fine. That’s it?

Intellect: No, that’s not it! The intellect is visibly irate now. You see, instead of deriving self-confidence and filling our needs with real and lasting stuff like internal qualities and connections to those around us, using material stuff just creates an endless appetite for more of these temporal solutions.

Z: Yes, makes sense. Okay, I…

Intellect: I’m not finished! It goes on, because as it is endless, it never fully satisfies, and this cycle is what spawned the “keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality. And as you can’t be keeping up with everything, we end up feeling less satisfied and experience negative emotions. If we continue on the path of materialism and comparison, we won’t find the satisfaction we are looking for. We will only have this constant desire to have what is new and better. Honestly…


Z: Why don’t you have a glass of water?

The agent pours a glass of water from a jug on the table and pushes in front of the intellect, who immediately gulps it down.

Intellect: Thanks. Thank you I needed that.

Z: You were saying?

Intellect: Oh yes, err, right so this dissatisfaction can then go on to affect other areas of our lives. The constant comparison can instil an inferiority complex in us. Furthermore, anxiety and depression can develop from that, as they are often both based in deep-seated dissatisfaction. I’ve been saying this to Amygdala for god knows how long now. I don’t know who the hell he has been listening to, he comes home from work each day and it’s like he has forgotten everything we have discussed. It’s quite frustrating.

Z: It all sounds a bit tedious.

Intellect: It is. And it’s tiring to keep on buying things. The velocity of purchasing is always going up, and it seems the utility of the stuff we buy is always going down. Being materialistic is mayhem. It’s impossible to keep up with the endless desires and cravings. It takes up so much headspace; it’s getting so cramped up there that there’s barely any room left to sit back and enjoy the finer things in life.

Z: I have a note here about addiction. Amygdala has a drug problem?

Intellect: No. Well, in a way, yes. His drug is luxury. History has shown that luxuries tend to evolve into necessities and then themselves spin off further needs. Once a luxury becomes a standard item in someone’s life, they take it for granted. They get hooked on it. They can’t do without it.

This never-ending pursuit of more is also time-consuming as it takes time to earn money, go shopping and spend money. Not only are we taking away valuable present time, but we are also striving for some theoretical future time, a future time that will never come, and the same future we are destroying with consumerism.

Z: That makes no sense.

Intellect: Welcome to Amygdala’s world.

Z: Don’t you find, being who you are and with your job description, by always buying your solution instead of figuring stuff out for yourself, you lose a lot of skills and know-how?

Intellect: You took the words right out of my prefrontal cortex. Automatically purchasing stuff and services is making us less mentally and physically equipped to make and do stuff ourselves. We become dependent on luxury and things being done for us. All these things that do everything for me now, it makes me feel quite useless.

Z: Ok I think we have enough here. I think we can bring this guy in. Amygdala has a lot to answer for. I can see you’ve gotten yourself quite worked up. Anything in closing?

Intellect: We participate in consumerism and materialism, even though it leads to the sacrifice of those things that satisfy us, because Amygdala reacts faster than me, and he has not been himself lately. I need to discuss this with him in a thoughtful and non-reactionary way so that he will learn over time, that being more frugal and practicing minimalism is not at all self-deprivation. And I suspect then, not only will Amygdala and I get along a heck of a lot better, but we’ll have the time, the notion and the energy to seek out genuine sources of happiness.

Z: Ok that should do it. Stop Tape.


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  1. Marta

    Hey Mike,

    This was a really great read, entertaining and smart! Thanks a lot for that 🙂

    It takes time and practice to get your amygdala under control but it is doable. Mine was quite rebellious so I would know…


    PS. Love your website!


    Thanks, Marta,

    I appreciate the time you took to read it, some say I have verbal diarrhoea. Yes, de-conditioning is a process for sure, I hope we can achieve it as a population though recognising it is the first step.


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