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December 16 2010

Life Without an Amygdala. Wired Magazine's website discusses a woman, who like River, does not have a functional amygdala.

The reaction this woman has is somewhat different from River's reaction; she does not seem to experience fear at all.

[ edited by zeitgeist on 2010-12-16 22:35 ]

Very interesting read. Thanks for posting.
“But one thing we’ve never known for sure, because they’re animals, is whether they can consciously feel fear,” says study coauthor Justin Feinstein...

That mentality really irks me. Many animals obviously feel fear, especially mice and rats. They make decisions based on that fear. There's no reason that we can't make the conclusion that they do or do not feel fear. I'm fairly certain there's a stack of articles in Animal Behavior that will tell him this.

Also-- it's venomous, not poisonous. But I expect that was the author of Wired Magazine that made that mistake.

Lastly, while I am definitely afraid of public speaking and death (not necessarily in that order ;P) the ways in which they went about attempting to actually illicit fear are not ways in which I really feel fear, either. In fact, I react pretty much the same as she does! I'm curious about haunted houses and well, I own a snake, so I'm curious about them as well. And my nephew owns a tarantula and I've never had a fear of it either. ;P

Did they try to illicit the startle response? They may have and it wasn't explicitly mentioned.

I think a more scientific-methody way of determining experimentally if she can feel fear needs to be done.

[ edited by VeryVeryCrowded on 2010-12-16 23:06 ]
Also, also. Where is the citation on that paper?
Two other write-ups on this story...

http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/67690/title/No_fear

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101216/ap_on_sc/us_sci_fearless_woman

Also, this hardly passes for something that should be posted on WHEDONesque, right?
Yeah I doubt it'll stay, very thin. But just in case...

Many animals obviously feel fear, especially mice and rats. They make decisions based on that fear. There's no reason that we can't make the conclusion that they do or do not feel fear.

I think there're two pertinent elements to what the study coauthor says VeryVeryCrowded, the first being "known for sure" (my emphasis) and the second being "consciously feel fear" (again, my emph).

I'm not a scientist but I get this all the time - when I say things like "I'm not sure" people seem to hear "Don't think is the case" when what I actually mean is, y'know, "I'm not sure" ;). I.e. since we can't ask them we don't know if their experience of fear is the same as ours, assuming it is based on appearances is just that, an assumption.

The other part is "consciously" as in, do they experience fear or do they simple respond to stimulus in a way that looks to us like they do i.e. do they "think" (whatever that'd mean for animals seemingly without language) "Oh, that's scary" or do they "think" "Aaargh, avoid looming shadows/pain/loud noises/etc." with the corresponding physical reaction. Again, not a scientist but it seems to me like animal behaviourists would have to be extremely careful not to anthropomorphise their subjects and impute feelings and perspectives to them based on what we would be feeling in the same situation.

That said, the article's a bit sloppy (as is almost universally the case when science news is reported in mainstream media) and as the authors say themselves, one example doesn't tell us very much (personally I giggle in situations where I should be afraid all the time and not only that, I don't always admit when i'm scared either, that's the problem with self-reported results).
Once in a blue moon on the front page we have real life stuff that can be connected to the Whedonverse.
It does have a slight tinge to it this evening.
I did have to look up what an Amydgala was. It's been a while since I watched Firefly. I'm trying to remember if it was properly referenced in Serenity.
I have to admit, when I saw this post, the first thing I thought was, "What does Episode 1 have to do with the Whedonverse?"
Heh ;). I call her that all the time. Started off being facetious (to show disdain for TPM), now it's become habit.

I'm trying to remember if it was properly referenced in Serenity.

Don't have the companions handy (still boxed after moving) but in 'Ariel' Simon says they "stripped her amygdala" though the essay in "The Psychology of Joss Whedon" says that her PTSD-like symptoms are actually closer to what happens when your amygdala is stimulated rather than damaged (or amygdalae strictly speaking - most of us have two, one in each brain hemisphere).

Pretty interesting essay BTW, it directly relates to this article and talks about Kluver-Bucy syndrome (which is the set of symptoms associated with your amydalae being badly damaged - the woman mentioned here only seems to have a subset of the symptoms which include the inability to recognise familiar objects, hypersexuality, heightened curiosity and generally lowered emotional function as well as fearlessness - snakes are specifically mentioned in there too since the experiment was first carried out on rhesus monkeys which have an instinctual fear of snakes).
As I recall, in "Ariel" the idea was supposed to be that "stripping" River's amygdala supposedly resulted in her being unable to suppress or regulate her emotions.

Saje: ... personally I giggle in situations where I should be afraid all the time and not only that, I don't always admit when i'm scared either, that's the problem with self-reported results).

Me, too. I tend to giggle, and/or then act or react, and then feel my fear afterwards. I don't imagine that sequence is always the brightest...

Maybe my amygdala is all whack.
This makes me wonder how much of River's erratic behavior is a result of her brain surgery and how much is because of the psychological torture she endured at the Academy.
Ah-hah! I have found you, oh actual citation:

http://www.cell.com/current-biology/abstract/S0960-9822(10)01508-3

(Or http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2010.11.042 which offers related articles and references on the side for those of you interested in exploring other studies done on the amygdala).

But of course you must pay for the full text, which sort of defeats the purpose, but at least the actual abstract is there for people to make their own limited inferences. It also bugs me when news articles are written up without the actual citation of the paper (at least Yahoo has the online journal cited).

And Saje--

I understand what you are saying. It is impossible to know that an animal is consciously fearful versus unconsciously fearful. But in the same vein, is it not impossible to know for certain that a human being other than yourself is consciously fearful? She could have lied, obviously, on the questionnaire, and she could have had a weirdo reaction to the fear stimuli like QuoterGal over there reacting way after the fact. ;) So there's still the argument that you cannot know for certain that what is going on is the truth unless you stick probes in her brain to actually record brainwaves and even then you have to infer that there is a connection between consciousness and brainwave pattern.

And there, I've brought it back to River. ;)

A few articles on fear/awareness in the scientific journal Animal Behavior.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2008.02.014
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0003-3472(73)80066-1
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.07.027

And yes, I do enjoy a good scientific discussion on Whedonesque!
I always interpreted the stripping of the amygdala to mean that there was a kind of filter that was missing - most people can compartmentalize their emotions and feel them at varying intensities, while River's come on her in floods and all at high intensities. I recently read a description of social anxiety disorder which actually really resonated for me with the stuff about River.

From Wikipedia:
A 2006 study found that the area of the brain called the amygdala, part of the limbic system, is hyperactive when patients are shown threatening faces or confronted with frightening situations. They found that patients with more severe social phobia showed a correlation with the increased response in the amygdala.[9]

I always think of River's amygdala as being overstimulated because it was "stripped," whatever that actually means/is supposed to mean.
"Stripped" is meant to mean ablated or surgically damaged I assume (IIRC it's mentioned that they went in and deliberately damaged parts of her brain) and Simon does indeed mention that she can't switch her emotions off, feels everything to the max, all the time. So her limbic system isn't functioning properly because her amygdalae have been stripped (i.e. she experiences emotions but can't control that experience because the controls are damaged). Maybe Joss et al meant "overstimulated" though and "stripped/damaged" just sounded more brutal ? Science isn't exactly top of the priority list on his shows though so I wouldn't be amazed (or bothered to be honest) if they got it wrong.

So there's still the argument that you cannot know for certain that what is going on is the truth unless you stick probes in her brain to actually record brainwaves and even then you have to infer that there is a connection between consciousness and brainwave pattern.

Absolutely VeryVeryCrowded (hence my comment about self-reported results). I don't even know anyone else is conscious, you could all just appear to be. But given the (necessary, fundamental) assumption that my senses represent the actual world and that, if we're careful, language can be used to accurately describe that world then when you tell me things that sound the same as those that I experience myself that's more evidence that we're experiencing (roughly) the same thing. We don't have that extra evidence with animals.

Agreed though that ultimately science makes all sorts of assumptions just to do what it does but there comes a point when you have to allow them in order to move forward (and that's more philosophy of science than science itself which i'm not sure many working scientists worry about day to day - what's the old adage "Critics talk about art, artists talk about brushes" ? ;). Fair enough though, for many people if it looks like an animal consciously experiences fear then that's good enough, s'all about where you draw the line.

Maybe my amygdala is all whack.

Naw, it's dope yo ! The good dope I mean... the other good dope I mean.

Must admit with me it's react -> giggle (but very quickly afterwards) rather than vice versa. Used to rock climb and when i'd slip and catch myself i'd giggle straightaway, I assumed just as a nervous reaction (although if i'd slipped due to my own stupidity, well, that also makes me laugh. My life's a laugh riot ;) but at the time I usually wouldn't actually experience fear, only in retrospect when i'd sometimes commit the ultimate climber sin of worrying about what could have happened (it'll be to do with adrenaline and so on i'd imagine i.e. I suspect my amygdalae are working because they respond entirely appropriately to spiders, those evil alien bastards).
Fascinating. Thanks for posting it!
Personally, I always took Simon's comment about what the Academy apparently did to River's brain re: her amygdalae to mean they surgically removed or cauterized the nerves or outer layers of tissue that could be the neural pathways for emotions regulation, not physically scooped out a part of her brain with the medical equivalent of a melon baller.

Could be technically bad science, but stuff like the Slayer essence not drastically altering its hosts physical appearance (i.e. increased strength and speed not coming from noticeably toned/muscular arms and legs) and the Dollhouse imprinting process work off of surface feasible ideas that probably would need to be massively revised if taken completely serious and had to be explained.
Sure, as I say, the science in Joss' stuff ranges from "Well, kinda" to "Err, no" ;).

(Buffy and 'Angel' are beyond criticism from a scientific point of view IMO - their universe is magic, anything goes and super-strength without the right musculature, treatment of opposing forces, momentum etc. is the least of it. But in 'Firefly' the solar system itself and faster than light communications are both highly suspect. Though that said, River has psychic abilities so maybe the Sereniverse should be seen as magic too ?)

Here's what Simon says in the 'Ariel' shooting script (i.e. the specific wording changes on the show where for instance he says "limbic system" here and "amygdala" in the aired ep).
SIMON (cont'd)
That's a scalpel scar. They opened
up her skull... and then they cut
into her brain.

Curiosity gets the best of Jayne --

JAYNE
Why?

SIMON
The only reason to make an incision
in someone's brain is to lobotomize
them -- you go in to remove damaged
tissue. Why someone would cut into
a healthy brain...

He lets it hang there -- the answer is beyond him.

SIMON (cont'd)
They did it over and over.

The downloading window switches to DOWNLOAD COMPLETE. Simon absently takes the plastic tab out of the machine, pockets it. A moment, as Simon looks at something else.

SIMON (cont'd)
< Jesus. > [Lao TYEN yeh.] They
stripped her limbic system...

Jayne doesn't really want to hear this, so --

JAYNE
We should get moving.

Simon misreads Jayne's hurry for incomprehension, starts to explain --

SIMON
You know how...
(how to explain)
You get scared. Or worried, or
nervous. And you don't want to be
scared or worried or nervous, so you
push it to the back of your mind.
You try not to think about it.
The limbic system is what lets you do
that -- it's like a filter in your
brain that keeps your feelings in
check.
(beat, disturbed by this)
They took that filter out of River.
She feels everything. She can't not.

How they took the filter out is a detail, maybe they cut specific nerves (pretty high tech but we don't know they can't), maybe they actually removed brain tissue, either way they done broked her amygdala ;).
The limbic system is what lets you do that -- it's like a filter in your brain that keeps your feelings in check.


So that's where my filter idea came from... Thanks for posting, Saje.

I can't convey the extent to which I identify with River, and especially this part of her. It's funny because on my first watch of the show, when it originally aired, I didn't care for her at all - even though from early descriptions I had pegged her as my potential favorite. But when I watch it in order - and when I watch Serenity (the movie rather than the episode)... Well, my heart gets a little tight or something, because I see myself there.

One of the most powerful metaphors we consistently see in the Whedonverse is this notion that if you're messed up in the head (and I use that phrase to describe myself here) - depressed, paranoid, anxious - it's not your fault.

It comes through again and again - here with River, on Angel with AYNOHYEB and Illyria's hostile takeover of Fred, and I know (though I've not got the presence of mind to come up with specific examples) I saw it in Buffy and Dollhouse too.

It speaks to me more than anything else in Joss's worlds. And it's even reflected in a glib answer to an SFX interview question:

What makes you sad? My chemical imbalance.
No worries Kiba ;). And yeah, i've known/know people struggling with clinical depression etc. and it's an odd thing the way we totally accept that, for instance, if you have diabetes you take insulin, if you have a heart condition you take pills for it but if you have a brain condition that you take medication for then you must be Kaaraaazzzeee ! The mid to late 20th century philosopher James Douglas Morrison captured it best I think when he said (and I quote) "People are strange" ;).

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