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The brain is an incredibly complex and mysterious organ, and scientists are only just beginning to unlock its secrets. One of the most fascinating areas of study is the amygdala, which is one of two small nuclei located deep within the brain. These organs play a critical role in our emotional lives, and they do so in ways that are often beyond our conscious awareness.
The amygdala are responsible for interpreting subconscious hints of danger and triggering lightning-fast responses to protect us from harm. They do this through pattern recognition, using their "speed dial circuits" to detect and respond to subliminal signals of danger or obstruction to our goals.
In coordination with other organs in the limbic system, such as the insulae, the amygdala also respond to negative emotions such as grief, guilt, envy, and shame. They react to negative events in many ways, including activating our sympathetic nervous system, which can cause gut-wrenching turmoil.
It's important to note that the amygdala react to these events much faster than our conscious awareness can keep up. In fact, while it takes around 300 milliseconds for us to become aware of a disturbing event, the amygdala react to it within just 20 milliseconds! This can sometimes lead to overreactions and knee-jerk responses that can make us stupid throughout the day.
The history of the amygdala is rooted in the earliest days of life on earth. Nature developed these organs as a defense response mechanism for animals, enabling them to fight, freeze, or escape when danger was detected. Over time, these organs evolved to support herd life among animals, and the insulae linked social emotions to a variety of felt sensations.
It's fascinating to imagine that the neural network of the brain stores these combinatorial patterns, and that the amygdala assembles combinatorial memories of painful experiences. This is why the amygdala can react in anticipation of pain when it recognizes familiar patterns. These memories can be acquired through personal experience, or passed down through generations.
The reactions of the amygdala can be "quick and dirty", bypassing the deeper wisdom of more advanced brain regions. However, by being more aware of the mechanism, we can effectively still their ill effects and recover our peace of mind. The amygdala plays a critical role in our emotional lives, receiving sensory inputs and triggering control responses.
The lateral amygdala receives inputs from our sight, sound, touch, taste, and pain systems, while the medial nucleus receives inputs from the olfactory system. The central nucleus of the organ then decides on the emotional significance of these inputs and sends impulses to various parts of the brain, including the brainstem, hypothalamus and facial nerves, which triggers a range of responses such as avoidance behavior, changes in blood pressure and heart rate, and facial expressions such as anger, fear, and disgust. The release of various neurotransmitters also heightens the intensity of fight, flight or freeze responses.
It's important to note that while the amygdala is geared to cause sudden tension, it is also considered to be a part of the basal ganglia (BG), which enables us to consciously control our actions and thoughts. The dominance of BG grants us the power to still the knee-jerk reactions of the amygdala.
As for the response of the amygdala to social situations, it's been observed that in primeval animals, it was the amygdala that initiated primitive anger and fear. Later, with the arrival of herd living, more subtle social emotions emerged. The insulae, another organ in the limbic system, triggered these emotions, linking them to experiences of bodily sensations such as pain, temperature, and mechanical stress.
Research by Antonio Damasio and UCLA's Eisenberger suggests that the insulae links bodily sensations to emotions, and that neural pain circuits are activated when a person suffers social rejection. The amygdala then registers memories of these painful sensations related to social emotions and reacts to the felt feelings of hate, disgust, shame, guilt, envy, jealousy, sadness and despair. Recent research has shown that the amygdala can identify anger and fear in a face, and even determine the level of threat. It is also sensitive to gaze direction, responding to subtle cues that indicate danger.
One important aspect of the amygdala is that it plays a key role in memory formation of emotional events. Experiments have shown that the amygdala can retain memories of emotional experiences for a long time, through a process called long-term potentiation. This means that the amygdala can be triggered by subliminal hints of past stressful events, leading to knee-jerk reactions such as anger, defense, or fear.
The amygdala also plays a key role in our social lives. Mirror neurons are believed to create empathy by allowing us to internally experience the actions and emotions of others. By being sensitive to incoming sensory patterns, the amygdala is quick to recognize the presence of negative emotions in others, thus empowering social interactions. A damaged amygdala is associated with conditions such as autism, or social-blindness.
However, it is important to note that the amygdala can sometimes overwhelm us with responses to real and imaginary threats. In order to shut down this turmoil, it is important to be aware of how the amygdala functions and to consciously take control of its knee-jerk responses by using the basal ganglia, which interprets messages and triggers motor programs that can help control our thoughts and actions. The amygdala responds to internal and external danger signals, but these dangers are not always life-threatening in the modern world. It is possible to tame the amygdala by being aware of its functions and taking control of its knee-jerk reactions.
One way to do this is by accepting the inevitability of the problems we face and evaluating them, so the amygdala does not react unreasonably. Relaxation exercises and mindfulness can also help to quiet the signals sent to the amygdala by tightened muscles. The prefrontal regions have powerful inhibitory circuits that can "switch behavior" back to normal, and impulses from the basal ganglia can inhibit the amygdala.
Anger, fear, and grief are all emotions that can be triggered by the amygdala. Anger can lead to resentment, impatience, and contempt, while fear can paralyze and lead to avoidance. Grief is a natural reaction to loss, but it is important to come to terms with it and move on. Mind control techniques such as self-awareness and mindfulness can help to still these negative emotions and bring common sense to the forefront.
In conclusion, the amygdala plays a critical role in our emotional lives, but it is important to be aware of its functions and take control of its knee-jerk reactions. By accepting the inevitability of problems, being mindful, and using mind control techniques, we can tame the amygdala and avoid unnecessary turmoil in our lives.