The amygdala is a region in the brain that’s associated with fear conditioning and emotions. It is activated when people look at frightening photos or any frightening stimuli. The amygdala is also activated when you look at photos of widely disliked or widely admired people, for example, watching pictures of Hitler or Martin Luther king will activate the amygdala. But what would happen if you damaged your amygdala?
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People with damage to the amygdala do not lose their emotions,they continue to feel fear, anger, happiness and other emotions just like normal people. However, damage to the amygdala interferes with social judgments that we make in our day-to-day lives. For example, when we look at someones face, some faces strike as ‘untrustworthy’ or ‘trustworthy’ but people who have a damaged amygdala see all people as ‘trustworthy’.
Also, people with intact brain always focus on the emotional content of a story. For example, when they hear a story about an accident where many people were killed, normal people remember the emotional part and forget the background or the irrelevant details. On the contrary, people with the amygdala damaged focus on the irrelevant part as much as the emotional part. For example, they would remember the colour of the sofa as much as the dead body on the sofa in a crime story.
People with amygdala damage also fail to recognize the expression of fear and that’s because people with amygdala damage rely on the mouth and nose to recognize other people’s emotions, but fear is an emotion that in general is associated only with the eyes.
People with amygdala damage also cannot experience fear. A case study where a lady was born with an impaired amygdala reported that she had never experienced fear in her entire life. Researchers took this as a challenge and decided to give her a scare.
Researchers first took her in a horror movie to see her reaction. They noticed that instead of experiencing fear, she sat there and laughed throughout the movie like it was a comedy. The researchers then went on and asked her what she dislikes or what she thinks she would be afraid of. The lady replied by saying that she hated snakes, the researchers then brought her some snakes and were ready to celebrate their victory, but as you can guess, the researchers did not have the last laugh. The lady did not freak out when she saw those scary snakes, instead she was petting and playing with them.
The researchers also took her to a haunted house, but again, she showed no signs of fear. The people who dressed up as zombies or ghosts were now afraid of her because of her weird reaction. Now that’s funny!
The researchers now wanted to do something different. They tried to suffocate the lady while she was sleeping to see how she responds and just like the researchers expected, she panicked and freaked out.
The researchers of this study then concluded by saying that, not all types of fear are associated with amygdala, only fear that’s associated with external stimuli is related to the amygdala ,but fear that’s perhaps internal, activates other regions of the brain. More research has to be done in this area in the future.
Not experiencing fear is not a good thing, fear keeps us aware and it helps us think about what could be dangerous. If you did not experience fear, you would probably walk up to a snake out of curiosity and the result could be preposterous, but because you experience fear, you would most likely stay far away from the snake.
Watch the video at the end for the case of SM- the fearless lady
Kalat, J. Biological psychology ( Click to buy the book)