The amygdala: the sentinel of our emotions

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Louise Hay

The amygdala: the sentinel of our emotions

Last update: April 25, 2015

The amygdala is part of the so-called human brain, the deep part where basic emotions prevail, such as anger, fear and the survival instinct, undoubtedly essential for the survival of all species. The amygdala, that almond-shaped structure, is typical of all vertebrates and is located in the rostromedial region of the temporal lobe, it is part of the limbic system and processes everything that has to do with our emotional reactions.

In neurobiology it is almost impossible to associate an emotion or a function with a single structure, but when we talk about the amygdala, we can say without mistake that it is one of the most important parts for the world of emotions. She is the one who makes sure that among all the species closest to us in evolution we are the most changeable; it is responsible for the fact that we can escape from a risky or dangerous situation, but it also forces us to remember our childhood traumas and all the moments of suffering we have experienced.

The amygdala and emotional learning

Let's take a simple example. We have just finished work, we go to our car parked in a nearby street, it is night and there is just a little artificial lighting. This twilight gives us a warning: darkness is a scenario that with evolution we have associated with risk and danger; for this we begin to accelerate the pace to reach the car. But something happens: an individual approaches us and our logical reaction is to start running to escape.

Through this simple sketch we can deduce many functions contained in the amygdala: it is the one that puts us in a state of alert by telling us that both the darkness and the individual who is approaching represent a danger.. Furthermore, after this situation we will have learned something new because we will conclude, thanks to the fear suffered, that the next day we will no longer park in that area.

Memories and experiences highly charged with emotional energy cause our synaptic connections to be associated with a structure, causing us to have effects such as tachycardia, increased respiratory rate, the release of stress hormones,… People who have damaged amygdala are unable to identify risky or dangerous situations.

The amygdala helps us find a suitable strategy after identifying a negative stimulus. But how do we understand that this stimulus can harm us? Thanks to learning, conditioning and those basic concepts that we recognize as harmful to our species.

Daniel Coleman, for example, introduced the concept of "amygdala sequestration" or "emotional sequestration", referring to those situations in which we are carried away by fear or anguish in a non-adaptive, or non-logical way and in which the despair prevents us from finding the right answer.

The amygdala and memory

The amygdala keeps our memories and our memory. On many occasions the facts are connected to an intense emotion: a childhood scene, the loss of a person, a moment in which we were restless or afraid.,… The more pungent our feelings are, the more neuronal connections occur around the limbic system and the amygdala. Furthermore, many scholars are trying to determine what kind of biochemical details affect this structure of ours; it is a useful study to be able to apply it to possible therapeutic and pharmacological treatments with which to minimize childhood traumas.

But we must not limit ourselves to associating fear with a negative drive that can cause trauma and psychological problems, on the contrary, it is a switch that warns and protects us, it is a sentinel that has allowed us to evolve, generation after generation, always having as a basis our defense and that of our loved ones. The amygdala is a fascinating primitive structure of our brain that takes care of us and that gives us a balanced view of the risks; fear, just like pleasure, is an essential emotional heritage.

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