The Almond of Horror

By Neuroskeptic | December 20, 2010 10:20 am

Remember the 90s, when No Fear stuff was cool, and when people still said “cool”?

Well, a new paper has brought No Fear back, by reporting on a woman who has no fear – due to brain damage. The article, The Human Amygdala and the Induction and Experience of Fear, is brought to you by a list of neuroscientists including big names such as Antonio Damasio (of Phineas Gage fame).

The basic story is nice and simple. There’s a woman, SM, who lacks a part of the brain called the amygdala. They found that she can’t feel fear. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that the amygdala’s required for fear. But there’s a bit more to it than that…

The amygdala is a small nugget of the brain nestled in the medial temporal lobe. The name comes from the Greek for “almond” because apparently it looks like one, though I can’t say I’ve noticed the resemblance myself.

What does it do? Good question. There are two main schools of thought. Some think that the amygdala is responsible for the emotion of fear, while others argue that its role is much broader and that it’s responsible for measuring the “salience” or importance of stimuli, which covers fear but also much else.

That’s where this new paper comes in, with the patient SM. She’s not a new patient: she’s been studied for years, and many papers have been published about her. I wonder if her acronym doesn’t stand for “Scientific Motherlode”?

She’s one of the very few living cases of Urbach-Wiethe disease, an extremely rare genetic disorder which causes selective degeneration of the amygdala as well as other symptoms such as skin problems.

Previous studies on SM mostly focussed on specific aspects of her neurological function e.g. memory, perception and so on. However there have been a few studies of her “everyday” experiences and personality. Thus we learned that:

Two experienced clinical psychologists conducted “blind” interviews of SM (the psychologists were not provided any background information)… Both reached the conclusion that SM expressed a normal range of affect and emotion… However, they both noted that SM was remarkably dispassionate when relating highly emotional and traumatic life experiences… To the psychologists, SM came across as a “survivor”, as being “resilient” and even “heroic”.

These observations were based on interviews under normal conditions; what would happen if you actually went out of your way to try and scare her? So they did.

First, they took her to an exotic pet store and got her to meet various snakes and spiders. She was perfectly happy picking up the various critters and had to be prevented from getting too closely acquainted with the more dangerous ones.

What’s fascinating is that before she went to the store, she claimed to hate snakes and spiders! Why? Before she developed Urbach-Wiethe disease, she had a normal childhood up to about the age of 10. Presumably she used to be afraid of them, and just never updated this belief, a great example of how our own narratives about our feelings can clash with our real feelings.

They subsequently confirmed that SM was fearless by taking her to a “haunted asylum” (check it out, even the website is scary) and showing her various horror movie clips, as well as through interviews with herself and her son. They also describe an incredible incident from several years ago: SM was walking home late at night when she saw

A man, whom SM described as looking “drugged-out.” As she walked past the park, the man called out and motioned for her to come over. SM made her way to the park bench. As she got within arm’s reach of the man, he suddenly stood up, pulled her down to the bench by her shirt, stuck a knife to her throat, and exclaimed, “I’m going to cut you, bitch!”

SM claims that she remained calm, did not panic, and did not feel afraid. In the distance she could hear the church choir singing. She looked at the man and confidently replied, “If you’re going to kill me, you’re gonna have to go through my God’s angels first.” The man suddenly let her go. SM reports “walking” back to her home. On the following day, she walked past the same park again. There were no signs of avoidance behavior and no feelings of fear.

All this suggests that the amygdala has a key role in the experience of fear, as opposed to other emotions: there is no evidence to suggest that SM lacks the ability to experience happiness or sadness in the same way.

So this is an interesting contribution to the debate on the role of the amygdala, although we really need someone to do equally detailed studies on other Urbach-Wiethe patients to make sure that it’s not just that SM happens to be unusually brave for some other reason. What’s doubly interesting, though, is that Ralph Adolphs, one of the authors, has previously argued against the view of the amygdala as a “fear center”.

Links: I’ve previously written about the psychology of horror movies and I’ve reviewed quite a lot of them too.

ResearchBlogging.orgJustin S. Feinstein, Ralph Adolphs, Antonio Damasio,, & and Daniel Tranel (2010). The Human Amygdala and the Induction and Experience of Fear Current Biology

CATEGORIZED UNDER: amygdala, media, mental health, movies, papers
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  • Anonymous

    Wow… so in the future the perfect army will be comprised of soldiers who have their amygdala's removed?

  • spike

    this is all a nice, coherent story. The only part that confused me was that she took the same path after being disturbed the night before. Doesn't this sound like a memory problem?
    even if you don't experience fear at all, it wouldn't be “rationale” to do what she did unless you claim that the memory is missing…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10860246538349067232 Lindsay

    “… [B]efore she went to the store, she claimed to hate snakes and spiders! Why? Before she developed Urbach-Wiethe disease, she had a normal childhood up to about the age of 10. Presumably she used to be afraid of them, and just never updated this belief …”

    That's really interesting; especially that she would retain the idea that she's scared of something when she hasn't actually *felt* fear in years.

    (I am glad you specified that she used to *have* a fear of snakes and spiders, though — plenty of people who do experience fear don't fear those things! I actually think snakes and spiders are adorable).

    Also, your amygdala illustration is hilarious. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06647064768789308157 Neuroskeptic

    spike: It's an interesting one. Some of her behaviour is not very “rational” e.g. in the shop she was keen to pick up the snakes and spiders, even the poisonous ones – even after she'd been told, several times, that they were dangerous. She said she was just “curious” and wanted to check them out.

    What this suggests is that a lot of “rational” avoidance is actually motivated by fear. You don't avoid doing X because you rationally weigh up the costs of doing so, you avoid it because you feel scared by the thought of doing it – of course that fear may be perfectly rational, but it's not the rational analysis which directly drives behaviour.

  • Anonymous

    but it's not the rational analysis which directly drives behaviour.

    I would bet that “rational analysis” doesn't direct anything in matters of goals selection only in execution.

  • http://mercurialmindmatters.wordpress.com mercurialmind

    This is quite interesting. Usually people theorize that the purpose of fear is to promote survival, although in her case it seemed like her case proved the opposite.

  • Grep Agni

    Spike:

    Whether it is rational to avoid the route thruogh the park surely depends on the totality of the data. Perhaps she walked that route hundreds of times in the past and was only accosted the one time. It's not at all clear to me that she should change her behavior based on a single incident. It's also not clear how much danger she was in — I have no idea how often people who threaten random strangers actually injure them. In any case, all that data would have to be compared to the danger of taking some other route.

    For people with normal fear reactions it may be rational to take a different path to reduce the near certainty of anxiety and related stress, even if there is otherwise “no good reason” to do so.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09690864291231469107 Christina

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09690864291231469107 Christina

    “The only part that confused me was that she took the same path after being disturbed the night before. Doesn't this sound like a memory problem?
    even if you don't experience fear at all, it wouldn't be “rationale” to do what she did unless you claim that the memory is missing… “

    I don't see why it would be “rational” to avoid that path. Just because a dangerous incident happened there one time doesn't mean that it's unusually dangerous, or any more dangerous than other potential routes she could take. After all, just because that incident occurred there doesn't mean it can *only* occur there. It seems to me that it would be irrational to assume otherwise. I myself would tend to avoid that place, but I realize it's because of my emotions, the same way that, for example, after I had a car accident a few years ago driving a few hundred miles, it took me quite a while before I could drive through the area where the accident happened without feeling lots of anxiety, even though that area wasn't more dangerous than any other stretch of highway.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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