What is the amygdala and what does it do?

The amygdala is recognized as a component of the limbic system and is thought to play important roles in emotion and behavior. It is best known for its role in the processing of fear, although as we’ll see, this is an oversimplified perspective on the amygdala function.

Since the amygdala has become best known for its role in fear processing. When we are exposed to a fearful stimulus, information about that stimulus is immediately sent to the amygdala, which can then send signals to areas of the brain like the hypothalamus to trigger a “fight-or-flight” response (e.g. increased heart rate and respiration to prepare for action).

Interestingly, research suggests that information about potentially frightening things in the environment can reach the amygdala before we are even consciously aware that there’s anything to be afraid of. There is a pathway that runs from the thalamus to the amygdala, and sensory information about fearful stimuli may be sent along this pathway to the amygdala before it is consciously processed by the cerebral cortex. This allows for the initiation of a fear reaction before we even have time to think about what it is that’s so frightening.

This type of reflexive response can be useful if we really are in great danger. For example, if you are walking through the grass and a snake darts out at you, you don’t want to have to spend a lot of time.

Where is the amygdala?

The amygdala is a collection of nuclei found deep within the temporal lobe. The term amygdala comes from Latin and translates to “almond,” because one of the most prominent nuclei of the amygdala has an almond-like shape. Although we often refer to it in the singular, there are two amygdalae —one in each cerebral hemisphere.

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