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Rescuing the Amygdala from the Swamp of Pop Culture

Neuroscience and Conflict Resolution Blog by Stephanie West Allen

Coming on the heels of my blog post Clearing up confusion: The amygdala is not the same as the reptile brain & it’s probably not reserved for fear is a news release from Association of Psychological Sciences with more information which I hope will continue the cleaning up of the amygdala’s reputation in the media. And clear up its role in our day-to-day to lives.

The release:

The Amygdala And Fear Are Not The Same Thing

In a 2007 episode of the television show Boston Legal, a character claimed to have figured out that a cop was racist because his amygdala activated – displaying fear, when they showed him pictures of black people. This link between the amygdala and fear – especially a fear of others unlike us, has gone too far, not only in pop culture, but also in psychological science, say the authors of a new paper which will be published in the February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Indeed, many experiments have found that the amygdala is active when people are afraid. But it also activates at other times, for example in response to pleasant photographs and happy faces.

The misconception came from how scientists first approached studying the brain. A lot of people came to the amygdala from the study of fear, says Wil Cunningham of Ohio State University, who co wrote the new paper with Tobias Brosch of New York University. “It’s a great emotion to study because it’s very important, evolutionarily, and we know a lot about fear in animals,” Cunningham says. Almost every study of fear finds that the amygdala is active. But that doesn’t mean every spark of activity in the amygdala means the person is afraid.

Instead, the amygdala seems to be doing something more subtle: processing events that are related to what a person cares about at the moment. So if you’re in a scary situation or have an anxious personality, the amygdala might be activated by a frightening image. But hungry people have increased amygdala activity in response to pictures of food and people who are very empathetic have an amygdala response to seeing other people.

“When we’re studying emotion, people want to find specific brain parts that are associated with different

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Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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