The Fear Study: What Happens when the Amygdala is Damaged?

What a Fear Study Brings to Mind
To some, fear is fascinating, and the prospect of a fear study is highly alluring. Especially to the curious mind or the brave at heart, fear is highly interesting because it creates such an intense reaction within all healthy individuals. Fear is a force which can only be ignored with practice and strikes primitive emotions, sometimes through the most random things. In fact, when you think of a fear study, you probably immediately imagine patients with odd phobias being examined, or you may think of a fear study as examining what happens exactly in the brain when individuals are exposed to scary stimuli, perhaps while they are in an MRI machine.

What Studies on Fear Have Told Us
Well, psychologists know from their study of fear in the past that the sensation is caused by a small portion of the brain known as the amygdala. I remember being highly amused by this when I first learned of it; it seems surreal to think such a strong emotion as fear is regulated by a specific area of the brain. But the amygdala does in fact regulate our sensations and responses to fear. Specifically, the amygdala controls what is now widely called the “fight or flight” response or reaction, which tells our brains but to due in situations instilling fear within us. When you see a big scary bear or the front page of a math test you know you’re going to fail, the amygdala tells you whether you should run in a zig-zag pattern or pretend you need to see the nurse because you feel like you’re going to throw up.

The Role of Amygdala Damage in Fear
But what happens when the amygdala is damaged? Certainly this would create the most unique and interesting fear study of all. Though it is unfortunate anyone should have to suffer a brain injury, the misfortune of one unnamed 44 year old woman is the gold mine of any scientist interested in the most rare form of fear study.

What A New Fear Experiment Has Taught Us
What sort of an effect does amygdala damage have on the human brain? Recall how fascinating fear can be; many of us purposefully attend horror movies and force ourselves onto amusement park rides specifically designed to send our amygdala into hyper-drive. The unnamed participant of the fear study who suffered amygdala damage was subjected to a number of scary stimuli such as snakes, an animal she reported to have been afraid of at one time, haunted houses, and traumatic memories.

Rather than demonstrating fear, however, the fear study participant merely seemed intrigued by these events. She even picked up the snake to examine it more effectively! These fear study findings support that fear and fascination are related, and while our amygdala tells us to avoid scary or potentially dangerous external objects, beings, and situations, without the amygdala (or by experiencing amygdala damage) the full effect of fascination may consume us.

Kloc, Joe. “Fascinated by Fear: Scientific American.” Science News, Articles and Information | Scientific American. 2011. Web. 11 June 2011.