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The Amygdala is the Fear Center?

From Stephanie West Allen’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution.

A lot of what is being said about the neuroscience of conflict resolution is cringe-worthy. Not only is research often done on college students, in the artificial setting of a lab, being presented as if it applies to real-life conflicts, but also as if we know for sure how people act outside the lab.

One of many criticisms I have about these this-is-your-brain-on-conflict assertions is that many are too reductionist. Dr. Will Meecham expresses my frustration with reductionism much better than I can. From "Computers of Flesh?" (PsychCentral):

It frustrates me that … it has become difficult to say anything about human behavior without invoking the findings of neuroscience. Although meditation clearly helps people cope, and has done so for millennia, its benefits now need the imprimatur of functional MR scanning in order to be accepted. Although building positive activities into one’s lifestyle can assist with battling addiction, we apparently need to hear this common sense advice framed as neuroscience before we’ll take it seriously.

If it were just a question of objective science validating ancient wisdom, I’d have no complaint. But because of the neuroscience perspective, human behavior is now viewed as a product of computations carried out in brain tissue. Different aspects of our experience get ascribed to named nuclei in the brain. Thus, the amygdala is our ‘fear center,’ the hippocampus is a ‘memory module,’ and so on.

These descriptions are not only highly reductionist, and therefore a bit suspect, they are also gross

simplifications of exceedingly intricate and redundant neural processes. By describing people in these stark terms, we strip them of their native complexity. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a problem if something valuable were gained, but as I noted above, the best clinical treatments come from experience with people, not experiments with brains. The largest effect of neuroscience has been to persuade us to think of ourselves as computers made of flesh. Is this really an improvement over the view that humans are sacred beings of mysterious origin? Is it an accurate belief? Could it not be the case that there is more to humanity than synaptic activity?

Personally, I’d recommend a grandmother’s advice about how to achieve happiness over a neuroscientist’s. I’d embrace a yogi’s opinion about how to manage anxiety over a psychiatrist’s. And I’d endorse a saint’s ideas about the meaning of human life over a reductionist’s. Sure, let’s continue to study the brain. But until the research proves itself in the behavioral realm, let’s not grant it so much influence over how we view ourselves and our struggles.

All I can add is "Amen." What are your thoughts?


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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