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.