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Why is the Amygdala Important?

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Why is the Amygdala Important?

Despite its small size, the amygdala plays an important role in many basic functions. The amygdala may also play a role in social skills because of its role in learning, memory, and emotion. A few studies have shown that people with larger amygdalae tended to have larger and more active social circles. Some other studies have implicated the amygdala in aggressive behavior, alcoholism, binge drinking, and sexual orientation.

What is the Amygdala Hijack

In his 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ,” psychologist Daniel Goleman named this emotional overreaction to stress “amygdala hijack.” The amygdala hijack occurs when your amygdala responds to stress and disables your frontal lobes. That activates the fight-or-flight response and disables rational, reasoned responses. In other words, the amygdala “hijacks” control of your brain and your responses.

The symptoms of an amygdala hijack are caused by the body’s chemical response to stress. When you experience stress, your brain releases two kinds of stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. Both of these hormones, which are released by the adrenal glands, prepare your body to fight or to flee.

Together, these stress hormones do a number of things to your body in response to stress. They:

  • increase blood flow to muscles, so you have more strength and speed to fight or flee
  • expand your airways so you can take in and use more oxygen
  • increase blood sugar to provide you immediate energy
  • dilate pupils to improve your vision for faster responses

When these hormones are released, you may experience:

  • rapid heartbeat
  • sweaty palms
  • clammy skin
  • goosebumps on the surface of your skin

An amygdala hijack may lead to inappropriate or irrational behavior. After an amygdala hijack, you may experience other symptoms like embarrassment and regret.

Sexual Desire and Arousal

Along with playing an important role in generating emotional responses and behaviors, the Amygdala also develops sexual activity. Sexual arousal is directly linked with the size of the amygdala in our brain. An individual with strong sexual desire often has a larger amygdala. A larger amygdala may function better in its role in processing emotional and specifically sexual information and the attachment of significance to it, which would increase the likelihood of sexual response, resulting in an increased sex drive. A bigger amygdala would help you to notice and feel aroused by a sexual cue and make you more likely to accept that cue and go for it.

To a fearful stimulus, the amygdala’s response comes to prepare the body for all the upcoming events that reflect the previous one. For example, if the dog bites a person, his brain will always prepare him to fear the dog. That incident will become a memory turning into an emotion of fear. So, it will save him from such future attacks.

The Superhero

The amygdala shares a special connection with another part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. The control center of the brain controls thoughts and actions. Its main job is to control the emotional responses to stress by regulating the amygdala.. The prefrontal cortex is a big region in the front of the brain (Figure 1). It can be called the control center of our brains because it helps to control our thoughts and actions. The main job of the prefrontal cortex is to control our emotional responses to stress so that we do not get too stressed out. This is why the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex share a special connection [2]. The amygdala quickly signals a threat or stress in the environment, and the prefrontal cortex helps the amygdala to see stressful events as a little less scary or frustrating. It is important to be able to use the brain to help slow the production of cortisol in the HPA axis. This process helps us calm down during a normal stressor by perceiving the situation as non-life-threatening. In the bear example, which is a real danger, this process would help us to calm down after the bear runs away.

Preserving Memories

The amygdala attaches emotional significance to memories. This is particularly important because strong emotional memories (e.g. those associated with shame, joy, love, or grief) are difficult to forget. The permanence of these memories suggests that interactions between the amygdala, hippocampus, and neocortex are crucial in determining the ‘stability’ of memory – that is, how effectively it is retained over time.

There’s an additional aspect to the amygdala’s involvement in memory. The amygdala doesn’t just modify the strength and emotional content of memories; it also plays a key role in forming new memories specifically related to fear. Fearful memories are able be formed after only a few repetitions. This makes ‘fear learning’ a popular way to investigate the mechanisms of memory formation, consolidation, and recall. Understanding how the amygdala processes fear is important because of its relevance to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects many of our veterans as well as the police, paramedics, and others exposed to trauma. Anxiety in learning situations is also likely to involve the amygdala and may lead to avoidance of particularly challenging or stressful tasks.

What happens if the amygdala is damaged?

Structural or functional changes in the amygdala are associated with a wide variety of psychiatric conditions such as various anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobia, panic disorders, depression, schizophrenia, and autism.

Some common signs and symptoms following amygdala damage include:

  • Inability to visually recognize surrounding objects
  • The tendency to inspect surrounding objects by smelling or chewing them
  • Irresistible need to explore the surrounding space and excessive reactions to visual stimuli
  • Excessive expression of fear and anger
  • Eating abnormal amounts of food even when not hungry
  • Memory problems
  • Aphasia (loss of speech and language)

Final Takeaway

The amygdala is a cluster of almond-shaped cells located near the base of the brain. Everyone has two of these cell groups, one in each hemisphere (or side) of the brain. The amygdalae help define and regulate emotions. They also preserve memories and attach those memories to specific emotions (such as happy, sad, joyous). These are called emotional remembrances. The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system. The limbic system is a group of complex, interconnected structures within the brain that are responsible for a person’s emotional and behavioral responses.

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