Neurology has always interested me, and I still remember learning in my undergrad neuropsychology class that the almond-shaped portion of the brain know as the amygdala was responsible for the emotion of fear. Like so many things we grow up hearing, the truth is a little more complicated, as BoingBoing science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker learns in her interview with scientist Paul Whalen. It turns out that fear is just easier to study.
Maggie Koerth-Baker: Your research shows that the amygdala does a lot more than just make us afraid. In fact, your research suggests that the idea of “fear” involves a lot more than just reacting to something scary. But where did these ideas come from, to begin with? Why do we think of the amygdala as a “fear center”?
Paul Whalen: In the early 1980s, the psychologists who wanted to study emotion had to pick one, and fear is the easiest to study in a human or animal. It’s difficult to know how to make a rabbit happy. It’s easier to know how to make organisms afraid. People were doing Pavlovian fear conditioning. You have a tone that tells the animal it’s about to receive a mild shock. Then you can study all the brain areas that react to that. You immediately realize that you have a model for how and why we get anxious and how we begin to predict what will happen to us next. And the amygdala ended up being one of those brain areas.
That’s why we started with fear. Now, the big push is to study happiness, but what we mean is reward systems, there, as well — the processes that predict good outcomes.