Scaredy (of the) Cat: Fear and the Brain

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My girl and I really lucked out with our new place in Canada. We live right next to a park, and there’s a creek down the road. We also have wonderful neighbours. But the best part of our new home is by far our awesome landlords. They take me for walks and have me over when my girl goes out or travels. Talk about landing with our bums in the butter!

Lately though, something has changed. I blame myself really. I was obviously such great company that our landlords decided they’d like a more full-time companion. The problem you ask? Well, they opted out of canine cuddles and in for feline feels. And it’s been an adjustment to say the least. Meet Luci the cat. Don’t let her sweet exterior fool you, she’s terrifying. Sure, she’s a quarter my size but as you can see, she rules the roost and I’m not taking any chances.

WHERE DOES THIS FEAR COME FROM?

Fear is a natural defensive response to what we perceive as being threatening. It’s crucial for survival. It’s often not easily explained, which is what makes it such an interesting topic for research. Fear has been associated with the amygdala (plural: amygdalae), a structure deep in the temporal lobe of the brain near the hippocampus. It’s often described as “almond-shaped” and like most structures in the brain, we have two of them.

HOW IS THE AMYGDALA RELATED TO FEAR?

A classic discovery showed that monkeys with damage to their amygdala no longer showed the typical fear response to threatening stimuli. For instance, they no longer demonstrated the fight-or-flight response when they were exposed to snakes. The fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction to a perceived threat that helps prepare your body to either fight, or if you’re like me, flee from danger. Note: fleeing from danger is often essential for survival. Thus, this shows I’m intelligent, and not just a coward. This study, and many like it, showed that the amygdala plays an important role in the brain’s ability to detect and respond to perceived danger.

HOWEVER, THE AMYGDALA IS NOT NECESSARY TO FEEL “FEAR”.

A common method used to trigger panic attacks and a fear response is to inhale carbon dioxide (CO2), which essentially mimics the feeling of suffocation. Which, as you can imagine, is quite effective. A study in 2013 showed that inhalation of 35% CO2 still evoked fear and panic attacks in human patients with damage to both amygdalae. These results indicate that intact amygdalae are not necessary to feel fear and panic. They also indicate that there is a distinction between fear triggered by external environmental threats, such as fierce felines, and fear triggered internally by inhaling the CO2.

Fear isn’t always rational and is very much about personal perception. However, there’s no harm in erring on the side of caution while you’re unsure. For now, while my amygdalae and healthy scepticism are still very much intact, I think I’ll do just that and keep my distance. But don’t you worry, I’ve got my eye on her.

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