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Amygdala's Role in Emotion: Function, Overview

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  • 0:01 Amygdala Structure
  • 0:45 Amygdala Function
  • 1:22 Emotions
  • 3:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kelly Robson

Kelly has taught High School Science and Applied Communications. She holds an Education Specialist Degree in Ed. Leadership.

The amygdala is a small structure in the brain. It may be small, but it can set off some powerful emotions. This lesson will review the structure, function, and role the amygdala has with emotions and other responses from various stimuli.

Amygdala Structure

The amygdala is an important part of the limbic system. The limbic system is comprised of various brain structures that are located above the brain stem and is highly involved with our emotions, feelings of pleasure, and memories. The amygdala is involved with the processing of the emotions, memories, and motivation.

Amygdala is Greek for the word 'almond'. The almond-shaped structure is only about an inch long. It is deep in the temporal lobes a few inches from each ear. This little almond has nerves running all through it, sending incoming messages from all of our senses, as well as from organs, throughout our body. The nerves are also attached to other important centers of our brains for the amygdala to send outgoing messages to.

Amygdala Function

The amygdala has many functions. It seems to act as a processing factory. It processes many things like memories, emotions, and responses to the environment.

The amygdala gets messages from all over the body and outside of the body through our senses. It takes the information and processes it to create an appropriate response to the messages it receives. When it is stimulated, it can cause intense responses of emotions. The amygdala is associated with:

  • Arousal
  • Autonomic responses
  • Fear
  • Emotional responses
  • Hormonal secretions
  • Memory

Emotions

The amygdala is part of the limbic system of the brain, which is involved with emotions and other reactions to stimuli. The amygdala is a processing center that is hooked up to receive incoming messages from our senses and our internal organs. It is highly involved with different emotional responses.

Fear is one of the responses that the amygdala is associated with. Responses to fear can include an increased heart rate, increased muscle tension, sweaty yet cold palms, and, at times, even nausea and diarrhea. These physical reactions get the body and mind ready for a fight or flight reaction. A fight or flight reaction is an internal defense mechanism to prepare the body and mind to get out of harm's way.

There are times when the amygdala takes a fearful situation and doesn't let go of it. These situations are usually extreme, such as fighting in a war. When the amygdala refuses to let go of this situation it may place the body in constant, or chronic, fight or flight mode. This type of disorder is known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Along with emotions, the amygdala processes memories. It filters the memories with the different emotional responses involved with the memory. The amygdala decides which memories it will keep and where the brain will store these memories. The more emotion attached to the memory, the more likely the amygdala will clear it for storage.

Let's use the emotions from a wedding as an example of this memory processing. The emotions attached to a bride's wedding are very strong (hopefully positive). The amygdala will sense this intense response to this day and give the memory a thumbs-up to pass into storage. It will send the memory to the hippocampus, another structure in the limbic system, which sends the memory into the proper storage box in the brain.

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