The Frightened Brain – A Bankole Johnson Perspective Based On Some Recent Research

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What is old becomes new again, and that interaction can become most intriguing.  We have all heard the term that “stress can kill you” but much of that adage relates to the direct effects of stress on the heart.  Now, we learn from an article by Dr. Ahmed Tawakol and colleagues published in the Lancet http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)31714-7/fulltext that stress activates a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala, to increase inflammation in the heart and the risk of heart disease. What is interesting, is that there appears to be a feed-forward loop in which the more stress on the heart, the greater the activity in the amygdala, and correspondingly even more stress on the heart. For a brief recap, the amygdala is a part of the brain that mediates our strongest emotions such as hostility, violence, anger, and fear.  Intriguingly, the amygdala also may process connections with deeper, perhaps even more negative memories that we might have had. If you like, it is part of the “dark side” of the brain. So, if your amygdala is over-worked, not only would you wish to flee that situation but also your ability to perceive the amount of hostility you are encountering can be distorted.  Perhaps worse still, the amygdala has connections with another part of the brain called the anterior cingulate, which tries to resolve the fearful emotions.  Think of the anterior cingulate like a boomerang that brings back all unresolved and uncomfortable memories and tries to sort them out. It is, therefore, reasonable to suggest that when this circuit between the amygdala and anterior cingulate is disrupted, there is now the opportunity for emotions others in others to be misread or misinterpreted. So extreme fear can take us down a tunnel of even more fear.  In other words, the “Frightened Brain” is more afraid that you need to be! To paraphrase a famous saying https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_inauguration_of_Franklin_D._Roosevelt#Inaugural_address –  fear fears fear itself! And, the “Frightened Brain” is not a good state of being for mental health.  While the research on the size of the amygdala and heart disease is interesting in itself, it is intriguing that another body of research shows that increased social networks might also increase the size of the amygdala http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v14/n2/full/nn.2724.html.  It would, therefore, be reasonable to propose that increased social behaviors and other interactions require the brain to negotiate how it will code a multitude of responses from engagement to fear and anxiety.  Since the amygdala is itself associated with the activity of other deep brain structures, as well as the anterior cingulate, it is fair to say that we do all possess intricate networks that allow us to perceive, appreciate, and negotiate “dark” emotions.  Furthermore, these effects of “dark” emotions in the brain can have an important effect on physical health, particularly in the heart.  So, it would seem, that a focus on creating and working to experience positive emotions, and reducing stress, is an important way to staying physically healthy.  Mindfulness through meditation can teach us to modulate powerful negative emotions.  It would, therefore, seem fascinating to devote systematic and concerted study the effects of various types of meditation or other mood training and mindfulness on brain structure and function. To revert to what I said at the beginning of this perspective, perhaps what is old, like meditation, may be part of a new wave that science might eventually prove to be important at improving mental well being.