The amygdala


Lesson objective:

Here we identify the main role of the Amygdala in paying attention to inputs and signals.

So, what happens in the stress response? 

First, let’s take a step back. 

The world around us is full of sensory inputs. Sights, colors, sounds, tastes, smells, physical sensations. From moment to moment, countless inputs enter through our ears, eyes, nose, mouth, or occur just in our minds through memory and thoughts.

All of these inputs are interpreted by the brain.

When sensory inputs interact with the brain, they often first interact with the amygdala

The amygdala, shaped like a little almond, is located deep inside the brain just above the brainstem. 

It is a core part of the limbic system which plays a large role in body state awareness (which we called interoception), threat recognition, and memory. 

The amygdala then begins an elaborate coordination process that leads to our general responses to the sensed world. It is intricately connected to many different regions of the brain, all of which play a role in our responses to the world around us, including dealing with stressors. 

The amygdala plays a large role in interpreting information against your first and foremost priority—survival. 

You can think of the amygdala like an engineer in front of the radar screen in the control tower. The engineer is constantly watching to see what is coming on the horizon. Most of what is approaching is not that important, because it poses no particular threat. 

Some approaching objects, however, may pique the engineer’s interest and cause him to sit up and assess if there is a risk. Not all incoming objects are relevant, but he must be alert for when something new or threatening approaches. 

In the same way, our amygdala plays a role on the front line of assessing potential risks. Most basically, the amygdala signals when to pay attention to a particular input in the sensory world, when that input is in any way salient, and all the more so if it is threatening.

After interpreting a signal, if the signal is relevant or requires some action, the amygdala then kicks off an elaborate coordination process that recruits many other regions of the brain and body. But we’ll get to that in a second.