The amygdala is a little clump of cells in your brain that’s often passed off as the place where your deepest fears are born.
But, in reality, the amygdala has less to do with things that go bump in the night, and more to do with your ability to pay attention to the world around you and learn what’s safe and what’s not.
Here’s a really fascinating excerpt from my BoingBoing interview with neuroscientist Paul Whalen, all about what happens to people who don’t have a working amygdala.
MKB: So, the amygdala is actually about how we pay attention to anything — not just stuff that makes us anxious or afraid — but anything?
PW: At the end of the day, it’s an attentional area of the brain. It tells us to be more vigilant, to be more aware of our surroundings right now. With that signal from the amygdala, your visual system or auditory system might see something or hear something that it would have missed otherwise. The amygdala sends the initial signal that tells the other parts of the brain to be better at what they do.
Here’s a human example. S.M. is a patient with bilateral amygdala lesions. She can be afraid. But she’s bad at learning about the things that cause fear. We show people these very exaggerated pictures of faces, some fearful, some not, and people give us a number for how afraid they should be. S.M, she’ll say something is a “2” on faces that other people say is a “5”. If I were to show you a fearful face, you’d look straight at the eyes. That’s where we get a lot of our information. But S.M. doesn’t. She stays focused on the middle of the face, or even goes to the mouth and chin. Her attention doesn’t go to the place where she should know you learn best. Now, if you tell her to look at the eyes, her ratings are normal. The amygdala wasn’t her source of the ability to be afraid. It was the source of her ability to know where to look to learn whether she should be afraid. The amygdala just facilitates that. It makes you better at learning what signals to pay attention to.
Read the rest
Last weekend, I started a new job, writing a monthly column on science and culture for The New York Times Magazine. The column is called Eureka. In the first edition, I look at “flip-flopping” politicians and examine what factors actually make people likely to change their minds on deeply held beliefs.
Hint: It’s not data and evidence.
Scientists have been studying attitudes and preferences for more than a century; those topics are bound to the origins of social psychology itself. Some of the earliest research, like William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s five-volume set, “The Polish Peasant in Europe and America,” published in 1918, revolved around the attitudes of immigrants: how they lived, what their neighbors thought of them, how they changed as they became Americans.
In the last decade, psychologists have focused increasing attention on moral attitudes. Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the Stern School of Business at New York University and author of “The Righteous Mind,” told me that researchers have been especially interested in the way emotions and attitudes interact. Moral attitudes are especially difficult to change, Haidt said, because the emotions attached to those preferences largely define who we are. “Certain beliefs are so important for a society or group that they become part of how you prove your identity,” he said. “It’s as though we circle around these ideas. It’s how we become one.”
Read the rest of the column at The New York Times Magazine
Image: …Experiments…, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mpeterke’s photostream
Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan, by William T. Vollmann. Byliner Originals, 2011. (Nook/Google Ebook/Sony eReader/iTunes bookstore/Kindle Single)
(This review was written for Download the Universe—a new group blog dedicated to reviews of science e-books and apps. No dead trees allowed. Read more reviews at DownloadtheUniverse.com)
On March 11, 2011, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded ripped apart a swath of eastern Japan. About an hour later, a huge tsunami wave tore through the wreckage, leaving behind a trail of salinated sludge and a burgeoning nuclear disaster.
You know all of this already, of course. In fact, at this point, the narrative of what happened in Japan—what’s still happening, really—has been repeated so many times that you might be tempted to think there’s no reason to read yet another take on this situation.
But you should set those thoughts aside. At least, you should set them aside long enough to read William T. Vollmann’s Into the Forbidden Zone, a 70-page narrative that tells the beautiful, heartbreaking story about the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake and highlights two of the key problems with the way this tragedy has been covered in the popular press.
Vollmann isn’t a science journalist. In fact, he’s primarily a novelist. If you’re looking for a lot of technical details on the science of earthquake prediction, or the real risks of radiation exposure, he can’t help you very much.
But, on the other hand, I think that’s part of what makes this book so powerful. As someone immersed in the science of news, it’s easy to lose track of what an event looks like from any other perspective. As an American, far removed from the actual event, it’s easy to get so caught up in seismometers, early warning systems, and debates over nuclear energy—in other words, what could happen to us someday—that we forget about the people all this stuff really did happen to 11 months ago.
Vollmann’s book brings the real story—how an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown have affected the Japanese people—back to the forefront, where it ought to be.
It’s that time again. Maggie is back at the largest science convention in the Western Hemisphere for four days of wall-to-wall awesomeness. Each day, she’ll tell you about some of the cool things she learned watching scientists from all over the world talk about their work. Check the bottom of each post to find links to earlier posts in this series!
Each year, the American Association for the Advancement of Science holds a conference. Scientists from every discipline you can think of attend. They come from all over the world bearing fascinating studies they’re dying to talk about, and Power Point presentations they’d probably rather I didn’t critique. The result: The worst part about this conference (besides the aforementioned poorly done Power Points) is trying to choose which session you want to see. There’s often as many as a dozen occupying the same time slot. Usually, three or four of those will strike me as something I MUST find out more about.
Friday morning, I picked a session that I hoped would provide some background and context on issues you and I are already talking about. Birth control—and, specifically, who should have access to it—has become a major issue in the current presidential campaign. Along with that has come a lot of confusion and misinformation about how birth control works, how effective it is, and what we know about its potential side effects. My first session of the day: Fifty Years of the Pill: Risk Reduction and Discovery of Benefits Beyond Contraception.
The first thing I learned: If you’re taking an oral contraceptive, there’s a good chance that you’re doing it wrong.