The Amygdala Is Not the Brain’s Fear Center

This blog post first appeared on the Psychology Today website.

I’ve been studying the amygdala for more than 30 years. When I started this work, research on this brain region was a lonely field of inquiry. The hippocampus was all the rage, and I sometimes felt jealous of the attention lavished on this brain region because of its contribution to memory. These days, though, it is the amygdala that is in the spotlight. This little neural nugget has gone from an obscure area of the brain to practically a household word, one that has come to be synonymous with “fear.” And for many people, my name, too, is practically synonymous with “fear.” I am often said to have identified the amygdala as the brain’s “fear” center. But the fact is, I have not done this, nor has anyone else.

The idea that the amygdala is the home of fear in the brain is just that–an idea. It is not a scientific finding but instead a conclusion based on an interpretation of a finding. So what is the finding, what is the interpretation, and how did the interpretation come about?

The Finding: When the amygdala is damaged, previously threatening stimuli come to be treated as benign. The classic discovery was that monkeys with amygdala damage were “tamed;” snakes, for example, no longer elicited so-called fight-flight responses after amygdala damage. Later studies in rats by me, and others, mapped out the amygdala’s role in a neural system that detects and responds to threats, and similar circuits were found to be operative when the human brain processes threats.

The Interpretation: Since damage to the amygdala eliminates behavioral responses to threats, feelings of “fear” are products of the amygdala. People are indeed less responsive to threats when the amygdala is damaged (in humans amygdala —> Read More