The smoke detector in my kitchen is ridiculously sensitive. Over the years, it has been a source of steady annoyance to me and of ongoing amusement for my guests. Take a roast out of the oven – smoke alarm. Fry some bacon – smoke alarm. Even a simple slice of toast will send it screaming. I keep a fly swatter hanging nearby, not because I get flies in the house, but to wave briskly in front of the smoke alarm, hoping to appease its wrath. Sometimes the only option is to reach up, rip it from the wall, and remove the battery until the cooking is over. It is at that point that my guests usually laugh as they hear me say something like, “I hate you! But you’ll probably save my life someday…”
I’ve come to learn that God has also wired our brains with a smoke alarm system: the amygdala. Each side of our brain has a tiny, almond-shaped bundle of neurons designed (among other functions) to set off a swift and strong reaction to threats. For example, I remember the time as a child that I was digging for night crawlers. I began feeling my whole body vibrating heard a deep throbbing hum. I paused in perplexion. Then I felt a sting – and had an immediate realization that I had just dug up an entire nest of ground wasps! My “fight or flight” response flashed like lightning, and I ran a 100-yard dash that could rival any Olympic athlete. Thanks to my brain working the way God designed it to, I escaped with only two small stings. It could have been much worse.
We humans, together with other animals, are hardwired with survival instincts. Our amygdala sends swift messages to other parts of the brain and body. We receive a rush of stress hormones that bolster us for battle.
This instinctive response can save our lives, but it can also yield a daily dose of anxiety, spiritual unrest, and torment. Unfortunately, some of us (myself included) have an internal smoke alarm much more like the one in my kitchen – set off by the smallest stimuli, and disruptive of daily life. Everyday encounters can trigger an overreaction in me. An unexpected interruption or an unreasonable request can bring out the worst in my behaviors – just ask my staff or volunteers! I find myself feeling threatened when there is no actual threat. It’s just the toaster.
Having our internal smoke alarm go off frequently makes it quite challenging to abide in love and truth. Just as cooking in the kitchen becomes much less focused or relaxed so long as the alarm is blaring, so also with our daily life. When our brain is on “high alert” we will find it quite challenging to think clearly, to be tender-hearted and vulnerable, to connect with others, to trust, to have fun, to be spontaneous, or to love our neighbor as ourselves.
I first encountered the analogy of a “smoke alarm” in the writings of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. The image immediately resonated with my experience – both in my kitchen and in my daily life. Van der Kolk has dedicated his life to studying and treating the crippling effects of trauma – part of the human experience that is far more commonplace than we realize.
In a truly traumatizing situation, we find ourselves helpless or powerless to do anything. Neither “fight” nor “flight” will save us. We instinctively revert to the “freeze” response and shut down. But our brains can keep producing stress hormones, even years after the threat has passed. This shows up in various undesired symptoms: high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, irritability, peevishness, headaches, muscle tension, nightmares, etc. Hence the title of Dr. Van der Kolk’s book: The Body Keeps the Score.
It is tempting at times to wish away all these unpleasant experiences. Can’t I just take a pill for it? Sometimes we do indeed need to take medications to keep our symptoms under control. But the symptoms (unpleasant as they are) can actually become our greatest allies. They are like the bread crumbs that allowed Hansel and Gretel to find their way back home.
That is where “The Watchtower” comes in – no, not the monthly publication of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but another part of the brain: our medial prefrontal cortex. It is the part of our brain that allows us to survey the scene from above, like a calm and curious observer. In relation to our “smoke alarm,” our “watchtower” can tell us calmly and serenely, “Not a fire – just the toaster.”
In an ideal world, we grow up in a safe, secure, and nurturing environment. We find our physical and spiritual and emotional needs well cared for. Our brain easily forms neural pathways between our “watchtower” and our “smoke alarm.” False alarms still happen, but are then much less common, and we are able to recognize them quickly and calmly. That is the ideal. In reality, for many of us, these neural connections literally do not yet exist, or are underdeveloped.
Thankfully, there is good news from brain science. The newest research backs up what we already know from our Christian Faith: we are capable of changing our habits and growing in virtue. In scientific terms, this involves (literally) rewiring our brain – forming new neural pathways. Throughout our life, our brain remains “plastic” – able to be reshaped. This best happens when we follow Jesus’ advice and become like little children (Matthew 18:3). In this case, it means rekindling some of those childlike qualities: wonder, awe, curiosity, eagerness to learn, and a willingness to make plenty of mistakes along the way.
Think of little children learning to walk and talk. We do not scold them when they stumble or fall. We do not berate them because they mispronounce a word. Quite the opposite – we find it cute and endearing, and cheer them on. Our steady encouragement and affirmation keeps motivating them to take the next step and learn the next word. All the while their brain’s “watchtower” is fully active – noticing everything with the utmost curiosity, making new connections every single day.
We tend to be hard on ourselves, to criticize, or to shame ourselves, thinking, “Why do I have to be this way??” Instead, with encouragement from God and others, we can learn to “just notice that” within ourselves, without criticizing or condemning. We can say, “Yup, there goes the smoke alarm again” and calmly inquire why it is going off. Even when it is not a fire, it is possibly something that needs our attention. From that calm and childlike wonder and awareness, we are then free to make a rational choice of what we will do. As this space of freedom and spontaneity grows within us, little by little, we can learn to abide in love and truth.