Negotiating with the Reptile Brain: the Neurological Basis of Fear

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Negotiating with the Reptile Brain: the Neurological Basis of FearI have a passionate fascination with the human brain, with good reason — it has been called by innumerable experts the most complex mechanism in our universe. And I am convinced this is true.*

If my descriptions and observations are a little inaccurate, I beg your forgiveness early; I am not a neurologist or a neuro-scientist of any sort. So I feel obligated as usual, to disclaim any interpretations of authority that derive from this article. My zealous curiosity has simply gotten the best of me… again. And, of course, I eagerly welcome any corrections.

I borrow this analogy: the human brain is like a house that has been continuously improved and expanded over time. It began with a simple brain stem, residing just above the spinal column, hundreds of millions of years ago. This is the most basic part of the human brain — responsible for the simplest of functions, like breathing and blood pressure. And just above the brain stem sits the amygdala — the proverbial human panic button. The amygdala is the source of our fight-or-flight response system. As far as the immediate moment is concerned, the amygdala is the neurological basis of fear.

On top of the amygdala rests the next level: the limbic system. This is the part of the brain responsible for more long-term anxiety and fear — as differentiated from the amygdala… and its immediate fear-response imperative. The amygdala and the limbic system also work in concert to give us feelings like empathy, sympathy, and their associated moral and ethical underpinnings. This is the area of the brain from which we derive “good” and “bad.”

These “lower” parts of our brains make up what might loosely called our “emotional” selves. This is in direct contrast with the newest part of the human brain — the pre-frontal cortex, or the frontal lobes. The frontal lobes are responsible for what we would call “higher” brain functions: things like reason, logic, and mathematics. This is the place where we actually consider or ponder our universe. This is also where we make long-term decisions and plans. And the reason I say the pre-frontal cortex exist in contrast with our lower brains is because the two are often in conflict.

Let’s look at two primary categories of fear:

  1.  Immediate fear, or panic. This is the fight-or-flight response, handled by your amygdala.
  2. longer-term anxiety. This is the fear you feel when anticipating some unwanted event, for example, and it is handled by your limbic system.

Before I learned about these various forms of fear — and how our brains handle them — I mistakenly assumed that fear could be “controlled,” rationally. Speaking in physiological terms, I would have assumed the pre-frontal cortex could somehow reason with the lower brain in order to mitigate fear. So it would have been natural for me to believe that anyone facing any type of fear would have well-developed frontal lobes. But that’s not correct at all.


Concentration and Anxiety

You might think that activities that require intensive concentration with relatively little physical effort — like archery or golf, for instance — would place huge demands on the pre-frontal cortex. In fact, just the opposite is true; the most successful participants in activities like these exhibit a mastery of the ability to minimize the influence of the frontal lobes.

The lower brain seems to work instinctively — that is to say, it seems to be more of a machine of automation… a sort of “autopilot,” if you will. The lower brain receives input and stimulus twice as fast as the pre-frontal cortex — meaning the brain’s first opportunity to react appears here. The lower-brain then communicates with the frontal lobes in order to make longer-term decisions based on the input. I believe, however, it is its automatic-response mechanism that causes the lower brain to work extremely well with repetitive tasks.
This might explain why people like golfers and archers don’t use their pre-frontal cortexes as much when performing these tasks; perhaps they have discovered a way to “turn everything over” to the lower brain in those critical moments — in order to perform better. It makes sense, if you think about it: your frontal lobes tend to “over-think” things. This works well in highly analytic environments, where we seek solutions to long-term problems. But in “crunch” moments, the last thing we need is a voice in our minds convincing us of all the things that could go wrong. And this is precisely what the frontal lobes do… they effectively predict all the pitfalls of the current moment, and pass those predictions on to the lower brain, where it can begin a fear response.
For people like golfers, here’s where all the “skill” comes in: they must train their frontal lobes to shut down, while giving the lower brain instructions to focus, stay calm, and perform a fairly simple function without succumbing to distractions. And that’s no small feat.



On the other side of this equation, we come up against short-term fear, or even panic. This is truly the realm of the amygdala; when your brain receives input that may be life-threatening, that information goes to the lower brain first, where millions of years of evolution inspire it to flood your body with adrenaline. Your amygdala prepares you to react, and to do so as quickly as possible.
In this environment, your frontal lobes become almost inert. But this is the very time when we may need our higher brain — to help us avoid mistakes that might spell doom. And it seems that intense training — like the programs U.S. Navy SEALS endure — can actually re-wire the brain to help us control the fight-or-flight reactions our lower brains impose on us when confronted with imminent danger. Research shows that it is possible, over time, to strengthen the role your pre-frontal cortex plays in these immediate reactions — allowing it to mitigate the panic and to make more sound split-second decisions.
You probably already know that most psychopaths feel little or no remorse for the horrific things they often do. And it turns out the amygdalas in psychopaths are typically about 17% smaller than those in normal brains. Again, if you were thinking intuitively, you might assume that a smaller amygdala would equate to lower-than-average intelligence. And again, this is not the case. In fact, most psychopaths have higher-than-average IQs.

It seems that the size of the amygdala, alone, is not the culprit for lack of empathy or sympathy in the psychopathic brain; rather, it is the amygdala’s relatively small size — in conjunction with its inability to communicate properly with the pre-frontal cortex — that accounts for the nature of psychopaths. In short, they just don’t have the ability to understand how these unspeakable acts affect the people on whom they carry them out.

This may also explain the apparent lack of longer-term fear psychopaths experience when doing what they do. Scientists know that anxiety results from activity in the frontal lobes being passed to the limbic system, and since these connections seem to be minimized, or missing altogether in the minds of psychopaths, it stands to reason they probably don’t experience trepidation as they carry out their heinous crimes.


Repetition is Key

I am beginning to understand the complex relationships between the “newest” parts of our brains, and those parts that derive from our oldest evolutionary ancestors. It isn’t my “overactive” amygdala that gives me stage fright, or causes me to dread the visit to my doctor. On the contrary, my pre-frontal cortex is the demon behind those longer-term fears. Like golfers, I must learn to reduce the activity in my higher brain, and turn events over to the relatively automated processes of my lower brain. This seems to be a scientific description of the ever-elusive zen moment

As an agnostic-atheist, I am skeptical about the act of prayer — although I do pray regularly to an entity (or entities) I don’t believe in. Call it a hedge, but I am “agnostic” first, and rejection of a process that seems to bring positive results to at least some people seems like a path to dogmatism. I will say, however, I have had limited results from “praying,” thus my skepticism.

Nevertheless, while I don’t believe prayer has numinous value, I do believe it has the same psychological value found in so-called affirmation practices in meditation. I am not a fan of the word “affirmations” and all it’s new-age associations (I prefer to refer to them as repetitions), but I think I finally understand why these positive mantras offer such demonstrable long-term returns. Simply put, repeating key positive phrases deprives the “rational” frontal lobes of the focus required to over-think a situation. Likewise, these mantras fit hand-in-glove with the repetitive nature of the lower brain — offering it a means of coping with situations without triggering a fear response.

It’s true, there are innumerable things that could go wrong at any given instant, or in any situation. But these repetitive practices may offer the best explanation why some people are able to stay focused and calm — while ignoring negative input that might otherwise remind them of how vulnerable they are. And the best news? By training your brain — repeating short, positive phrases — you can learn to set aside irrational fears and perform better in any tense situation.


* UPDATE: I have decided to reject this notion on the basis of statistical probability alone. Considering the billions of galaxies in the universe — and the billions of stars in each galaxy — it is so improbable as to effectively be impossible that the human brain is the most complex thing in the universe. It is better to say it is the most complex thing in the universe that we know of.

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