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Emotions and the brain
Fear, Anxiety and Anguish

Original modules
Tool Module: Scientific Research on Emotions Scientific Research on Emotions
  Tool Module: Managing Stress   Managing Stress
  Experiment Module: Neuropsychologists Show How Emotions Affect Cognition and Decisionmaking   Neuropsychologists Show How Emotions Affect Cognition and Decisionmaking
  Tool Module: Cognition and Emotion: Two Distinct Concepts for Two Distinct Realities   Cognition and Emotion: Two Distinct Concepts for Two Distinct Realities
History Module: The Quest for a Theory of the Emotions   The Quest for a Theory of the Emotions

“Centres” of Cognitive Functions in the Brain: A Misleading Concept

Observations of animals and human babies have shown that we are predisposed to fear certain animals and certain situations that have proven dangerous to our species over the course of its evolution. Children do not necessarily display this fear reaction the first time they are placed in contact with the danger, but if they receive the slightest sign from the people around them that they should be afraid, they will become afraid, and the fear will be long-lasting.

Baby monkeys raised in captivity are not afraid of snakes. But if you show them a film of another monkey acting afraid in front of a snake, snakes will immediately become an object of terror for them. This same phenomenon does not occur with other objects, such as flowers. Besides snakes, other things that human beings are predisposed to fear include other reptiles, spiders, birds of prey, dogs, and heights.

But our evolutionary roots are of little use to us in responding to the things that pose real dangers for us today, such as firearms and automobiles.


The behavioural responses generated by fear are remarkably well preserved in all vertebrates. For example, if a rat enters a room where there is a cat, the rat freezes, faces the cat, then remains motionless before trying to flee or, if it is cornered, trying to bite the cat that is attacking it.

Humans who are frightened go through basically the same steps: they stop what they were doing, turn toward the source of the threat, then refrain from taking any action during the phase when they are trying to assess the threat. Then, if their assessment confirms a threat, they try to flee or hide. If a confrontation is unavoidable, fighting the threat becomes the last remaining option to try to protect the body’s integrity.

Just like the behavioural responses to it, the physiological changes associated with fear are very well preserved in the animal kingdom. These of course include all the changes triggered by the sympathetic nervous system to help us deal with the situation: faster heart rate, faster breathing, dilated pupils, and so on. But there are also other, more subtle phenomena, such as the suppression of pain in the face of danger, which is well documented among soldiers in combat, and lets us concentrate our energies on the highest priority threat.

In humans, the basic range of behavioural responses to fear is generally augmented by uniquely human ones that draw on our greater cognitive abilities. But these unique capabilities that our human cortex gives us can also cause us fear, anxiety, and anguish.

People who are old enough now to have been aware of the assassination of President Kennedy often remember in astonishing detail exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. The same thing goes for the September 11 attacks or for any other landmark event with a heavy emotional impact.

Psychologists are very familiar with this phenomenon of memories that remain especially clear and resistant to being forgotten, and refer to them as "flashbulb memories". Experiments with animals have provided a fairly good understanding of the mechanisms underlying such memories. For instance, experiments have shown that injecting rats with adrenalin just before putting them through a learning session helps them remember their tasks more effectively.

Now we know that the amygdala, when activated by a significant emotional stimulus, triggers all sorts of bodily responses, including the release of adrenalin by the adrenal glands. It is this adrenalin that, by a pathway that has yet to be identified, helps memories to be encoded more effectively in the hippocampus and the temporal lobe. That is why we are better at remembering things that are important to us, or in other words, things that trigger our emotions.

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