The Amygdala and Persistent Dark Mood

Surviving on the wild savannah without amygdalas would have been difficult for ancestral tribes of humans. But it is no picnic trying to be happy in modern hectic times with our amygdalas.

Recent research by U. Miami psychologists published in the Journal of Neuroscience reminds us once again that in many ways, “we are what we think.” If we want to think dark thoughts, our amygdalas will be glad to assist us.

For some people a single small irritation can wreck their entire day, while others can swiftly shake off minor problems and move on. A new study led by researchers from the University of Miami is suggesting persistent activity in the amygdala could be why some people are unable to quickly move on from momentary negative experiences.

“The majority of human neuroscience research looks at how intensely the brain reacts to negative stimuli, not how long the brain holds on to a stimulus,” explains Aaron Heller, psychologist and senior author on the new study. “We looked at the spillover – how the emotional coloring of an event spills over to other things that happen. Understanding the biological mechanisms of that is critically important to understanding the differences in brain function, daily emotions, and well-being.”

The new research examined data from a massive longitudinal study called MIDUS (Midlife in the United States), an ongoing study that follows thousands of subjects tracking their general health and well-being.


The amygdala is involved in fear responses and fear memories, and is involved in anxiety behaviors and alerting responses. People who meditate have less amygdala reactivity to emotional situations. The amygdala works on the subconscious level, and stores its own emotion-laden memories which can link into events which occur on a day to day basis. These daily events can then trigger recurring negative moods, which can be difficult for the person to explain due to the subconscious nature of amygdala inputs to other parts of the brain.

Certain drugs, and deep brain stimulation with precisely targeted electrodes can calm the amygdala fear/anxiety/alerting responses, for conditions such as panic attack, PTSD, other mood disorders. Needless to say, the meditation approach is less invasive than neurosurgery and less prone to side effects than either drug treatment or DBS.

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Limbic System Hypersensitivity

Common maladies such as “chronic fatigue syndrome,” fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome are sometimes linked to “limbic system hypersensitivity” by unconventional practitioners. But just because the ideas are not approved by the AMA does not mean that there is nothing useful to be found in them — if just to help generate ideas and hypotheses.

If you think you may be the victim of limbic system hypersensitivity and are into do-it-yourself pop science approaches to health, this “limbic retraining system” offers a lot of simple things to think about and to try.

Remember that swimming in a sea of negativity is toxic to the mind, body, and spirit. Sometimes you have to use a flood of good feelings — the laughter cure — to deal with a flood of bad feelings. Here’s the brief case history of Norman Cousins’ use of laughter to treat a crippling bone disease:

I suspect that laughter will neutralize the effect of toxic negativity on the body every bit as well as mindfulness meditation. Just to be safe, why not try both? (I confess, I smile just thinking about the Marx brothers movies.)

Beneficial Effect of Laughter Therapy on Physiological and Psychological Function in Elders

This entry was posted in Cognition, emotions, Enlightenment, Human Brain, meditation. Bookmark the permalink.

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