When a frightful creature startles you, your brain may activate its fear-processing circuitry, sending your heart racing to help you escape the threat. Imagine, for example, you’re weeding your garden and see a coiled water hose, but you think it’s a snake. The job of your brain’s fear-processing circuits is to help you learn from experience to recognize which situations are truly dangerous and to respond appropriately. So if the scare comes from a water hose instead of a snake, you’ll probably recover quickly. In more dire circumstances, however, if the coiled object is a poisonous copperhead, the brain’s fear response can be critical for your survival. “Being able to fear is the ability to sense the danger and is the driving force to figure out a way to escape or fight back,” said Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Professor Bo Li.
Neuroscientists know that fear memories are made in the amygdala—an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain, considered the hub for fear processing. And that’s where many of their studies begin. Li’s team is probing the brain circuits that underlie fear, using sophisticated neuroscience tools to map their connections and tease out how specific components contribute to learning fear. An understanding of these circuits could lead to better ways to control the overactive or inappropriate fear responses experienced by employees with anxiety disorders and those who suffer from panic attacks and post traumatic stress disorder in the workplace.
Suppose, for example, your boss walks by your desk. You hook eye contact with her, smile, and nod. She looks straight at you, but doesn’t acknowledge your presence. She might as well be staring at the wall. “Holy cow,” you say to yourself. “I must be in hot water.” You shrink inside, ruminating over what you might have done to deserve this. Your heart races, and you feel shaky. It’s just a few days before your performance review. Sleepless nights stalk you. You toss and turn as your brain circuits spin with worry over job security. This is your amygdala in action, making up a story from its library to help you survive.
The day of your evaluation, your boss calls you into her office, and your stomach flip-flops. You tremble the way you did in sixth grade when you were summoned into the principal’s office. But, to your dismay, she greets you with a smile and gives you a glowing performance evaluation. Not only are you not in hot water, she calls you a highly valued team member, a laudable success—the exact opposite of what your anxiety predicted and a feather in your career cap.
All that worry and rumination for nothing. But it has already taken a toll on your mind and body and your job performance. Studies show that 90% of the worries that our brain circuits scare us with are false alarms that never manifest. Still, the amygdala catalogues, prioritizes and remembers the negative experiences in an attempt to prevent life’s unexpected curve balls from ambushing you. If you’re like most people, you believe the library of memories from the past as they show up in the present moment.
But had you “thought about it” (been able to keep your prefrontal cortex or rational brain online) you might have realized there are a number of benign reasons your boss didn’t acknowledge you when she walked by your desk. Perhaps she was distracted by her own worries, deep in thought over an upcoming meeting or simply just didn’t see you. But our brain circuits in the amygdala jump into action, focused only on the disastrous possibilities, blowing your thoughts out of proportion sending you into spirals of rumination. And you fell for it hook, line and sinker just like all of us do.
While the amygdala was once thought to be devoted exclusively to processing fear, researchers now are broadening their understanding of its role. New research out of Stanford University shows that the fear circuit extends far beyond the amygdala. Li’s team has found that the amygdala is also important for reward-based learning, and as they trace its connections to other parts of the brain, they are uncovering additional complexity. “It is important for formation of fearful memory, but it’s also important for interacting with other brain systems in a different behavior context,” Li said. “We think that this circuit that we discovered that plays a role in regulating fearful memory is only a tip of the iceberg. It is indeed important for regulating fearful memory, but probably is also involved in more complex behavior.”
Li and his colleagues were surprised recently to find that the amygdala communicates with a part of the brain best known for its role in controlling movement. The structure, called the globus pallidus, was not known to be involved in fear processing or memory formation. But when the researcher team interfered with signaling between the amygdala and the globus pallidus in the brains of mice, they found that the animals failed to learn that a particular sound cue signaled an unpleasant sensation. Based on their experiments, this component of the fear-processing circuitry might be important for alerting the brain “which situations are worth learning from,” Li said.
The implications for employees with anxiety disorders or just plain harried workers are that they can worry less and focus more on their jobs, which could potentially escalate engagement, job performance and career success. Not to mention the company’s bottom line.