The Amygdala & Emotions
The amygdala triggers your emotions faster than your conscious awareness. The unique “speed dial circuits” of the two almond sized nuclei within your brain are the first to react to emotionally significant events. These organs protect you from harm by interpreting subconscious hints of danger to trigger lightning fast responses.
When you imagine that the mind does not compute, but senses patterns, you will be amazed by the incredible competence of these organs. They detect and respond to subliminal signals of danger, or of obstructions to one's goals. In coordination with the insulae, they also respond with alacrity to negative emotions like grief, guilt, envy, or shame.
The amygdalae react to negative events in many ways, including through the activation of your sympathetic nervous system. The results cause you gut wrenching turmoil. While it takes around 300 milliseconds for you to become aware of a disturbing event, the amygdalae react to it within 20 milliseconds! Sadly, the knee-jerk responses of these organs cause you to overreact to the world around you. Their momentary mischief in the morning can subconsciously trouble you the whole day. An awareness of the mechanism can enable you to effectively still their ill effects and recover your peace of mind.
the early beginnings of life, nature developed the amygdala as a
defense response mechanism for animals.
of the bundled network of neurons.
insulae, the seat of social emotions sends pain messages to the
amygdala, in response to social failures.
pattern recognition responses of the amygdala are incredibly subtle.
phenomenon, LTP grants a lifelong memory to the amygdala.
amygdala support the recognition of emotions in others.
amygdala draw your attention to emotionally significant signals.
prefrontal regions have powerful inhibitory circuits, which quiet the
amygdala contribute significantly to anger, fear, grief, envy and
What is the History of the Amygdala?
the early beginnings of life, nature developed the amygdalae as a
defense response mechanism for animals. Recognizing danger patterns,
the organs enabled animals to fight, freeze, or escape. As essential
as the vertebrae, these organs protected fishes, amphibians,
reptiles, birds and mammals from harm. Later, the evolutionary
process evolved more sophisticated emotions to support herd life
among animals. These social emotions were triggered from the insula,
another organ in the limbic system.
Over aeons, the nervous
system had also assembled regions, which could sense many patterns in
the environment, including odor, sound, color, taste and touch. Other
regions in the brain identified internally felt patterns, including
pain, cool or warm temperature and mechanical stress. The insulae
linked social emotions to a variety of felt sensations. The power of these organs becomes clearer, when you imagine that neural network stores these
experiences in life were always accompanied by patterns of internal
and external sensory inputs. Imagine that the amygdalae assembles combinatorial
memories of such pain related patterns. You will understand how subsequent recognition of
those patterns cause the organs to react in anticipation of pain.
Many of these memories were acquired painfully through personal
experience. Others were passed down through generations. The
reactions of the amygdalae on recognition of such patterns were
“quick and dirty.” Their responses bypassed the deeper wisdom of
more advanced brain regions. They triggered knee-jerk outputs –
like a bull charging a red rag. The rag is not a threat, but merely
What are the Features of the Amygdala?
The amygdala is
a bundled network of neurons, about one inch in length, in the limbic
system, deep within the brain. Specific regions within it receive
sensory inputs and other regions trigger control responses. The
lateral amygdala receives inputs from sight, sound, touch, taste and
pain systems. The medial nucleus receives inputs from the olfactory
Deciding on the emotional significance of received
sensory inputs, the central nucleus of the organ sends impulses to
the brainstem, triggering (typically jumpy) avoidance behavior.
Impulses sent by it to the hypothalamus activate the sympathetic
nervous system, raising blood pressure and heart beats. Impulses sent
to the facial nerves generate varied expressions, including anger,
fear and disgust. Norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, and
acetylcholine released from the amygdalae raise or lower the
interactivity of critical networks, heightening the intensity of
fight, flight or freeze responses.
While it is geared to cause
you sudden tension, the amygdalae are anatomically considered to be a
part of the basal ganglia (BG), a gray bundle of neurons, which
enable you to consciously control your actions and thoughts. The
dominance of BG grants you the power to still the knee jerk reactions
of the amygdalae.
How does the Amygdala respond to Social Situations?
primeval animals, it was the amygdalae, which initiated primitive
anger and fear. Later, with the arrival of herd living, more subtle
social emotions emerged. The insulae, organs in the limbic system,
triggered these emotions.
The insulae linked such emotions to
the experiences of sensations, including sharp pain, burning pain,
cool or warm temperature, itching, muscle contraction, muscle burn
because of lactic acid, joint movements, soft touch, mechanical
stress, tickling, flushing, hunger and thirst.
trigger varied emotion signals, each specifically accompanied by
pleasant, or unpleasant bodily sensations – the warmth of love, or
the pain of guilt. It was Antonio Damasio, who suggested that it was
the insulae, which link bodily sensations to emotions. Eisenberger's
research at UCLA reports a typical link of emotions to sensations.
Neural pain circuits were found to be activated, when a person
suffers social rejection.
The pain of rejection defers from
the pain of a pinprick. Pain is known to have two pathways. One
carries the pain sensation. Signals in the other carry a feeling of
“hurt,” which is reported to be more disagreeable. Such negative
sensation signals from the insulae reach the amygdalae. The organ
registers memories of the painful sensations related to social
emotions. They react to the felt feelings of hate, disgust, shame,
guilt, envy, jealousy, sadness and despair.
How Sensitive is the Amygdala?
amygdalae recognize subtle patterns. Recent Harvard research reported
the reactions of the organ, when subjects looked at photos of angry
and fearful faces. The organ can identify anger, or fear in a face.
It can also determine the threat level of an angry, or fearful face.
You are not under threat, when an angry person glares at somebody
else. But, if he glares at you, your amygdala fires instantly! You
are not in danger, if a person looks with fear at you.
the fearful face looks elsewhere, there is danger nearby. Your
amygdala responds again. Not only does the organ identify fear and
anger in a face, it is also sensitive to the threat implied by gaze
directions! But, the organs were responding to photos. Higher brain
regions know that a photo cannot harm you. The amygdalae are
primitive in their assessments.
Does the Amygdala ever Forget?
amygdalae have been noted to assist in the memory formation of
emotional events. In experiments on caged rats, the animals receive
painful foot-shocks, accompanied by specific sounds. Later, the sounds
alone were observed to induce stresses in the animal. The sound
signals were noted to generate stronger responses in the input
synapses of the amygdalae. The neural junctions receiving the signals
increased intracellular calcium, leading to protein synthesis. The
sound to pain relationship was retained in memory as long-term
potentiation (LTP), a persisting potential, causing the amygdalae to
react more readily to signs of danger.
LTP has serious
implications. Over the years, the amygdalae remember the things you
felt, saw and heard, each time you had a painful experience.
Subliminal hints of such stressful events (even photos!) will cause
the organs to set off attack, or escape routines. Those motor routines
trigger evasive actions or internal turmoil. Before you know it, you
will become angry, or try to avoid the situation. If you cannot solve
the issue, angry, defensive, or fearful internal voices will nag you.
The amygdalae will overwhelm you with responses to real and imaginary
threats for a lifetime, unless you consciously take control of their
knee jerk responses.
How does the Amygdala influence Your Social Life?
neurons are believed to create empathy by assisting you to
internally experience the actions and emotions of people. Being
sensitive to incoming sensory patterns, the amygdalae are quick to
recognize the presence of negative emotions in others. In the
process, these organs empower social interactions. If the amygdalae
are damaged, animals fail to react to threatening situations with
emotions or avoidance behaviors. A damaged amygdala is associated
with the condition of autism, or social-blindness.
How does the Amygdala shut down Turmoil?
recognizing emotionally significant events, the amygdalae trigger
impulses, which interrupt your normal routines. Your prefrontal
regions consciously control your mind through impulses sent to the
basal ganglia (BG). The BG interprets these messages and triggers
motor programs setting off sequences of actions and thought
processes. Anne Graybiel discovered that the BG is also able to
manage your tasks automatically by storing memories of consciously
controlled tasks. In the end, the BG subconsciously
manages all your grunt work, while at the top level, you think about
where to have lunch.
The autopilot of an airliner can
routinely manage by itself. It can also be manually controlled. Or,
built in emergency procedures can take over its control. So also, the
BG. You can raise your hand. You can do it without thinking. If your
hand touches a hot plate, your motor systems will raise it for you.
If you see a snake in the garage, the basolateral amygdala will
instruct the BG to shift the attention of your mind from your
intention to mow the lawn.
How do You tame the Amygdala?
capture control back from the turmoil created by the amygdala. The
ancient organ responds to internal and external danger signals. But,
these are not life threatening dangers in the modern world. You do
not have to run for your life, or fight a tiger. It is only a
motorist, who swerved in front of you. Sadly, the amygdala pulls the
emergency lever. Road rage, or accidents could follow its visceral
But, the amygdala is somewhat open to reason. Its
urgent reaction to a snake will be instantly stilled if you find that
it is only a garden hose. The mind
control tips in this website suggest a few routines to quiet the
amygdala. The first of these is an acceptance by the organ of the
inevitability of the problems you face. Problems appear awful only
when their implications are unknown. When you evaluate them and face
them, the amygdala will not react unreasonably. There are also ways
to quiet visceral reactions. Relaxation exercises can also still
signals sent to the amygdala by tightened muscles.
prefrontal regions have powerful inhibitory circuits to BG to “switch
behavior” back to normal. Impulses from BG can inhibit the
works by inhibiting irrelevant neural activity. An animal either
drinks, or it chews grass. It can choose. The choice inhibits
irrelevant systems, and activates the motor systems, which you focus
on. If you decide to count up to ten, your anger will reduce. You
will become more tactful towards your opponent. An awareness of the
physical symptoms accompanying emotions can also instantly disconnect
the messages to the amygdala. This website presents you with ways to
still negative emotions. But, all these require a little
How does the Amygdala trigger Anger?
you may forget a compliment, your amygdala will never forget a
slight. When the organ becomes oversensitive to real or imagined
stress points, anger becomes a problem. Anger causes some people to
subconsciously resent authority, or a cruel fate. Anger makes them
impatient with mistakes and errors, or contemptuous of people. In
positions of power, they become harsh, or patronizing and
condescending. Hidden anger often covertly induces self failure.
Everywhere, it is the amygdala which impels them on. With effective
mind control, they will stop seething against the inevitable thorns
and barbs of fate and accept life as it is, with all its mindless
How does the Amygdala Trigger Fear?
A rat in
a cage cannot avoid getting a footshock. When it senses signals,
which imply the potential for pain, the amygdala triggers freeze or
flight behavior. Fear tends to paralyze. Every vista appears
dangerous and threatening. You can only do one of three things, when
you face a threat. Do something about it, avoid it, or live with it.
Creative management requires alertness, not fear. Pangs of fear can
be stilled through self awareness and a few mind control practices.
When fear is stilled, the awareness of danger will still be present.
But the ability to take calculated risks and make a project
successful will come to the forefront. Common sense appears, when
fear is stilled.
How does the Amygdala Magnify Grief?
is a social emotion, which triggers pain. When life deals you a
severe blow, it is but natural to feel sadness and to dwell on the
images of “what might have been.” All such images trigger evasive
action by the amygdala, which desperately seeks an impossible escape
from the sense of loss. A reasonable period of grief is needed for a
person to come to terms with traumatic changes in life. Awareness can
still the constant tendency to dwell on thoughts of escape from the
inevitable. It is necessary to gradually forget the past and to plan
for a new future. As grief subsides, common sense will take over,
motivating the mind to get on with life.
How does the Amygdala Support Envy
comparison drive within us constantly compares us with others. It
is an unfortunate, but relentless process. The insulae trigger pain
with every failure to compete. A neighbor's shiny new car can be a
painful reminder of overdue mortgage payments. A bright new recruit
to the office may be seen as a threat to the chances of promotion.
Envy is triggered by failure and jealousy, by the prospect of
failure. Both emotions cause pain. The amygdala triggers urgent but
fruitless searches to avoid the pain. Failure leads to anger and
negative behavior. An acceptance of one's own shortcomings can still
these debilitating emotions. When your own failures are accepted,
common sense can motivate you to avoid those failures in future, or
to go out and seek new opportunities. Learn to still the animal responses of the amygdala and gain your peace of mind.
This page was last updated on 19-Oct-2015.