So, Joseph E. LeDoux Ph.D. (or Mr Amygdala as some call him) is the man who made the study of the Amygdala sexy, at a time when everyone else was looking at the hippocampus. Well who can blame them aye? As a result of his studies over the last 30yrs (at least partly anyway) the Amygdala has become know as the 'fear centre' of the brain, and poor Joseph as 'the fear' man himself. Recently, however, he has come out with the view that in fact this isn't the case. Well, not completely.
You see, he argues that fear is a concept, it's a cognitively constructed idea that we associate with a set of physiological changes that occur as a response to threat - sweating, increased heart rate and so on. Indeed, fear is defined as "an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm". Studies have shown, however, that activity in the Amygdala increases even if the subject is not consciously 'afraid'. This is done through subliminal exposure to 'threat'. Thus there is a distinction to be made between subconscious neuronal activity and conscious experience or interpretation of that activity.
As LeDoux states "the amygdala contributes to non-conscious aspects of fear, ..... the detection of threats and the control of body responses that help cope with the threat. Conscious fear ...............is a product of cognitive systems in the neocortex that operate in parallel with the amygdala circuit. (Joseph E. LeDoux Ph.D., Psychology Today, August 10, 2015)
Fear then is something that only organisms with an awareness of 'self' or concept of 'me' can experience.
This doesn't mean that less 'complex' creatures don't experience trauma or phobia. Think back to my last blog and the
mice who were traumatised by associating 'some thing' with pain. It could be anything, even a Jelly Baby, provided there is a consistent link between the taste or smell of the Jelly Baby and the Pain. These mice will develop a 'phobic' type behavioural response to that stimulus. However, Mr Mouse's entire phobia can be described as:
JELLY BABY > FREEZE > NO JELLY BABY > OOH, LOOK AT THAT LOVELY CHEESE
He doesn't live a life haunted by memories of 'Jelly Babies', he doesn't become a recluse afraid to even leave his little mouse house in case 'those Babies' are out there, he doesn't catastrophise and imagine himself into panic. His trauma is much simpler (unless of course he's being zapped continuously):
EXTERNAL STIMULUS - SUBCONSCIOUS ACTIVITY AND EVALUATION - EXTERNAL BEHAVIOUR.
As humans, we aren't so blessed. Once we've learned a negative association or experienced trauma we IMAGINE things, we tell ourselves things, we 'what if'. In more serious cases we have intrusive thoughts and memories and and our world shrinks as we avoid any threat, real or imagined (the brain makes no distinction). I have clients who were virtually housebound as a result of IBS and the fear of 'what might happen'. And that's because we know 'me' or 'self' and as a result we know 'fear'. In simple terms, as humans we do what Mr. Mouse does but we also do:
INTERNAL THOUGHTS/DIALOGUE > SUBCONSCIOUS NEURONAL ACTIVITY > INTERNAL EMOTIONAL/PHYSIOLOGICAL RESPONSE > EXTERNAL BEHAVIOUR
Because we are not limited to responding to a pure environmental stimulus, we can run this loop continuously.
Back to Mr LeDoux "(One of the important) outputs of the Amygdala is the secretion of chemicals .......... and hormones ...... In situations of danger, these chemicals alert the organism that something important is happening. As a result, attention systems in the neocortex guide the perceptual search of the environment for an explanation for the highly aroused state.......... (enhanced) by the retrieval of memories. If the stimuli are known sources of danger, “fear” schema are retrieved from memory. My hypothesis, then, is that the feeling of “fear” results when the outcome of these various processes (attention, perception, memory, arousal) coalesce in consciousness and compel one to feel “fear.” This can only happen in a brain that has the cognitive wherewithal to have the concept of “me".
So, what does this mean? Well strap-lines such as "Be afraid, be very afraid" are wasted on our small mammalian friends. And indeed maybe Mr Mouse isn't so timid after all. More importantly, it adds more weight to understanding how people create their problems and why what I do works. Because I, and other professionals like me, work with the brain and in particular at the bridge between conscious response and subconscious reactions or activity. Using advanced therapeutic techniques we help people to stop that 'automatic' response dead in it's tracks. And by creating new emotional responses to the same stimuli, (whether that be environmental or internal thoughts and dialogue) we help clients to effectively create 'new memories' or different neuronal pathways that become their default response. Clever.
Seem complicated? The best way by far to understand this is to experience it. So, if you've got a fear or a phobia or suffer from PTSD, come see me.
For more on Mr LeDoux visit here: