How Does Our Brain Create Fear?

Why do we feel fear? For years, a part of the brain called the amygdala has been implicated in this emotional response. This region links memories with emotional responses, one of which might be fear. A patient (known as S.M.) with dysfunctional amygdalae on both sides of her brain has been known to show no fear in response to various fear-inducing stimuli, including life-threatening traumatic events.

Everyday Gas Induces Fear in the Brain

Another stimulus that is known to evoke fear is carbon dioxide. Inhaling this gas turns on a protein which in turn plays a role in fear and anxiety (how this protein works in inducing fear remains unknown). How would patients with damaged amygdalae react to this stimulus? A team of researchers at the University of Iowa tried to find out.

fear center in the brain
The first image is a scan from a normal patient and the next three are from patients with damaged amgydalae. The area marked in red shows the lesions present in their brains. [Image Source: Iowa Neurological Patient Registry at the University of Iowa]

‘Fearless’ Patients Show Fear

To their surprise, they found that the 3 people with lesion in their amygdalae (let’s call them patients) showed a greater degree of panic than a group of patients with normal amygdalae. The patients described having experienced emotions they had never felt before, with their descriptions residing well under the category of ‘fear’. Clearly, these results show that the amygdala is not an absolute necessity for fear. However, anticipatory responses to the inhalation, such as an increased heart rate before inhalation, were shown to be significantly increased in controls when compared to patients.

These results led the authors to believe that the carbon dioxide activated a previously unused pathway in patients with damaged amygdalae. One possibility is that most stimuli that normally induce fear are external—perceived visually or auditorily—, whereas inhalation of carbon dioxide represents a physiological, internal, change that does not need processing by the amygdala to generate fear. Another conclusion that the authors came to was that the amygdala might, to some degree, inhibit fear, since the degree of panic attacks was milder in the control group.

Fear is an important survival mechanism, and this experiment gives important clues to its origin. You can read about this research here.

Speaking Out Your Fears Helps You Face Them

If the results from a recent psychological experiment are to be believed, the saying ‘’Face Your Fears’ might just have to be changed to ‘Blurt Your Fears’. Researchers at the University California, Los Angeles, have found that saying your fears before facing them actually reduces the fear itself.

Fooling Yourself into Being Less Scared

Similar to other actions that intentionally regulate emotions, such as distraction, it has been increasingly believed that giving an emotion a label, either in verbal or in written form, can help downregulate it. This downregulation is not merely at a superficial level. Brain regions that are involved in emotional processing are actually found to be less active when an emotion is labelled as opposed to when it is not.

Speaking out your fears may help you face them. [Image credit: learnamericanenglishonline.com]

Is Labeling One’s Fear Better than Distracting Oneself or Rationalizing Away the Fear?

Scientists decided to apply this in a real-world context, by testing how different groups of people could change their fear of spiders (arachnidophobia). Participants were divided into four groups—each of which had to face a tarantula. The first group, called the ‘’affect labeling’ group, had to state their fear before they went closer to the spider. The second group, called the ‘reappraisal’ group, had to vocalize something neutral (and definitely not negative) about the spider and their emotions towards it, something that would prime them to think less negatively about how they approached the spider (for example, “Looking at the spider is not dangerous for me”). The third group was the ‘distraction’ group in which participants had to describe furniture in their room. Participants in a fourth ‘control’ group did not vocalize anything. Participants from all groups were again exposed to the spider a week following this test.

Our Bodies Show Different Responses From Our Minds

The skin conductance response test (SCR) was used as one indicator of emotional arousal while approaching the spider, so as to reduce subjectivity. It was found the the degree of this arousal (representing fear) decreased much more in participants of the ‘labeling’ group as opposed to all other groups, i.e., participants who had stated their fear of the spider showed the greatest reduction in this fear response a week later. Interestingly, none of the participants said they felt less scared when they were asked to self-report their fear, it was just that their bodies responded less…fearfully.

The authors propose that this result is similar to those achieved by being in a state of mindfulness, which is also associated with reduced activity in the regions of the brain involved in emotional response.

Thus, speaking out your fears might just be all you need to face them more easily. You can read the published article on this experiment here.