A Constant Battle: As the Amygdala takes on the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex – Blog #3
By Sarmin Akter, Branden Eggan, PhD, James Stellar, PhD
Fear and anxiety are two things that can stop a person from reaching their truest potential. As I mentioned in Blog #1, once I started attending college at the University at Albany, I noticed the lack of inclusion. As someone who naturally deals with anxiety on a daily basis, it was also difficult for me to open up and be as social as I normally would be in an environment with which I was familiar and comfortable. This is likely because I was raised in the Bronx and I grew up surrounded by people of all different ethnicities and backgrounds. When I arrived on campus it surprised me and I almost felt as if I had been tricked into thinking this would be my home away from home. I did not know anyone and I felt as if I were an outsider. I was afraid and this fear made me not want to be my true, authentic self. In order to fit in, though there was diversity all around me, I was going to have to pick my identity and own it or else I would find myself homesick and friendless. Unfortunately this was difficult because I am not one hundred percent any ethnicity and it shows in the color of my skin, my beliefs, and my attitude. I had a constant battle occuring in my brain, with my unconscious saying “watch out” and “you might never be good enough” while my conscious brain was telling me to be true to myself, to be Sarmin, to give it a try and if they didn’t like me, I’d find another group to call my friends.
After conducting the research for Blog #2 in this series, I have found that this is all natural and everyone feels it regardless of skin color, ethnicity, or creed. It is actually natural for anyone to feel anxiety when put in to a new social situation and ultimately to gravitate towards what is familiar, which for me was a face of color. Think back to those brain regions and how we stressed in the previous blogs that all of these regions are constantly in communication. We all have a frontal cortex or conscious brain where we make plans, like meeting new people, and we also have unconscious circuits that house our emotional brain, like anxiety. What that means outside of conscious thought is that you can have a voice in your head yelling “warning, warning, be afraid, that person does not look like you and will probably not be very welcoming.” All that you may know consciously is that something is pulling you back. It is just a feeling that even though you want to meet new people, maybe this isn’t the right group for you. We will break down the neurocircuitry of this situation below. The point is that it is natural and part of us all.
A little bit more neuroscience
Dr. Amy Arnston, a researcher at Yale University studies post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sounds a bit like my situation, right? We’ve got fear in the unconscious brain dominating over that conscious control, only in this situation this fear can be triggered over and over to stimuli that only remind the patient of the original source of negative emotion. A typical example would be a soldier falling into overwhelming and debilitating fear following the sound of a car backfiring as they flash back to their time on the battlefield. What Dr. Arnston was able to show was that the prefrontal cortex has the ability to manage the importance of thoughts and actions influenced by the unconscious brain. In the instance of the car backfiring, the prefrontal cortex would say “I know that sound just triggered a very vivid, emotional memory, but hey, you’re standing in the middle of the street and if you don’t move right now you’re going to have bigger problems on your hands.” When the prefrontal cortex goes offline, that’s when problems such as PTSD arise. To get a little more specific, Dr. Arsden showed that in patients with this disorder there is actually a weakened projection between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, two regions that I’m going to bring you back to in the next section. Amazingly, when a treatment drug (an alpha-1 receptor agonist) increased the connection between these two regions and seemed to significantly help her patients. This is evidence that the communication between these two regions is necessary for human functioning but also that the strength of these connections governs your behavior. Fear in this case was not diminished or erased from the brain of the patients, but rather strengthening that top-down control or emotional regulation stemming from those conscious areas was able to help the patient better cope with the previously debilitating fear and anxiety. If you’re more interested in Dr. Arsden’s work and stress, click here for a short video slideshow that explains more of neuroscience behind these circuits or click here for a link to this aspect of the work of the Arsden Lab.
Back to my story
As we noted in Blog 2, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is one of the prefrontal cortex regions that appears to be involved with the positive or negative value of a decision, the regulation of negative emotions, social cognition and emotional regulation. This brain region interacts with the subcortical amygdala which is involved with fear and anxiety. If you were to put my brain in a scanner on that first day of classes you would have seen both of these areas lighting up like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Standing there in the campus center trying to decide with whom to sit for lunch, my emotional amygdala was screaming “If you don’t spot a familiar face by the end of this line then take your food to go.” I didn’t hear this in my head but I felt it, as I got closer and closer to the cash register. What was running through my head was the voice of my vmPFC, weighing out the pros and cons of my decision – making new friends versus making an awkward situation?
Luckily I spotted my friends sitting at a table at the last minute and made a beeline straight to their table. Now let’s take this a step further and remove the friendly faces to better represent what we are faced with every day when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Suppose it is the first day of classes and you are a commuter student. You haven’t yet met anyone on campus and are deciding with whom to sit in your biology lab. Four students per table and each table is filling fast. That unconscious mind highly active, the amygdala giving you a feeling of panic and worry with the vmPFC weighing the outcomes based on past experiences. Do you make the decision to sit with the two quiet girls of color or the two male jocks who already have the supplies out and are jabbing one another. What if you come from a small town that lacks diversity? Would you fear the two students of color because they don’t look like you? Likely, yes, because of a phenomenon called in-group and out-group bias (we can write an entire blog on that but it is not our point here). Let’s add a few more factors, what if your older brother is a jock? What if he dropped out of college? What if the jocks at your predominantly white high school bullied the few kids of color? This is what the vmPFC can do, it uses past experiences that you judged as positive or negative and can quiet that fear circuit for you to make the best decision at that moment. It can quiet that fear of the unfamiliar faces and can decide that your chances of earning an “A” are far more likely if your labmates aren’t more concerned with who can get their paper football in the trash can.
This fear reduction is an important way to make changes within a mindset and create a pathway that allows me to want to learn, continue to learn and evolve my mindset as time progresses. All of that can happen because of the communication that is continuously occurring between the amygdala and vmPFC. It applies to PTSD patients as the Arnston Lab showed and on a smaller scale it applies to my experiences when I consciously force myself to to enter different groups. I am able to learn that after I put myself in these situations a few times and nothing bad occurs, things get easier. Psychologists might argue that this is a classic fear-reduction experiment decreasing activity in the amygdala alone but we and the Arnston Lab believe that rather than deleting this fear, the vmPFC is gaining more control as the connection between these two regions is strengthened with experience.
So to answer that question I proposed in Blog 1 of “Why do people choose to be exclusive rather than inclusive” I have come to understand that it’s built in to our brains. That answer seems to fall short though and must be followed up with the fact that our brains have the ability to be changed, that’s called “neuroplasticity”. From birth we are placed in to groups and our brains start to make assumptions that “this group is good” and “this group is bad.” Luckily, with each time that we have a new experience, the “good” and “bad” of each group is reinforced or weakened. Through my experiences at UAlbany I have broken this fear and retrained my brain to be inclusive, it has opened up a whole new world of people, food, ethnic culture, ways of looking at the world, that allows me to learn. I came to college to learn. I came to educate myself academically, socially, culturally and become a better Sarmin. Perhaps a little patient retraining of the brain (amygdala) combined with a set of consciously constructed set of positive experiences (vmPFC) is the key to institutional efforts to make a more inclusive university, and UAlbany is the perfect place for that because of it’s beautiful diversity.