Recent research, reported in the Science News’ article, Cerebral Delights, flushed out some primary neurological links between fear and need. Who knows, perhaps science will eventually discover most everything that is discoverable (1).
I have felt for a few years that fear stood at the headwaters of all emotions, including those related to need. Additionally, what fear and need mean is less straightforward than often thought. Therefore, before diving into this, I should clarify my sense of these words, especially need. For this, please see One who speaks does not know to review my caveats concerning need and fear.
Learning to speak Thai was the catalyst for deepening my understanding of need. I picked up the Thai language the easy way – living among non-English speaking Thai folks. A particularly striking difference in thinking between my Western upbringing and the Thai culture was in the use and meaning of the word want and need. I was accustomed to think need, want, and desire were different. For instance, I may want that yacht; however, do I really need it? By contrast, Thai’s, at least at the peasant level, don’t perceive a sharp distinction between need, want, and desire. The synonymic nature of these words made sense to me, as did their Buddhist worldview.
Regarding need, want, and desire as virtual synonyms applies to the research reported in Cerebral Delights. All of these connect deeply to our pursuit of pleasure. Similarly, fear, worry, and insecurity link deeply to our avoidance of pain. Consider these contrasting words: need vs. fear; pleasure vs. pain; attraction vs. repulsion. While we’re at it, why not include love vs. hate; beauty vs. ugly; and good vs. bad. Do you see how all these words correlate?
Need ≅ pleasure ≅ attraction ≅ love ≅ beauty ≅ good
——- ———– —— ————- —————————
Fear ≅ pain ≅ repulsion ≅ hate ≅ ugly ≅ bad
Now let’s dive in…
I am happy to see some objective scientific evidence linking need with fear. My research is quite literally just the opposite — a thoroughly subjective experience. That is a murky research environment to say the least. Yet in some ways, it can be a most valid and efficient way to go for any person. After all, before we know it, life is over and we’ve returned to the great Nothing, whereas science crawls along for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, fooling ourselves is all too easily, so I welcome any supporting evidence. I’ll paste the most pertinent passages below. (For the full report see, https://www.healthcare.uiowa.edu/labs/hbrl-neurosurgery/pub_pdf/Amygdala_Science_News_Feb_26_2011.pdf)
The amygdala, a part of the brain known for its role in fear, also helps people spot rewards — and go after them.
For years the amygdala has been regarded primarily as the brain’s center for fear. Scores of studies have shown that it is essential both for perceiving fear and expressing it.
In recent years, though, a surge of new research has expanded scientists’ view of the amygdala’s importance. It turns out that the amygdala helps shape behavior in response to all sorts of stimuli, bad and good. It plays a role not only in aversion to fright, but also in pursuit of pleasure.
Studies of the brain’s anatomy reveal good reasons for the amygdala’s power: It is very well connected. In humans and other primates, the amygdala is linked through a complex network of cells to brain regions involved in all five senses. Signals about everything you encounter are passed from the brain’s sensory processing areas directly to the amygdala. And the amygdala shares elaborate communications channels with the prefrontal cortex — the brain’s control center for planning and decision making.
Its strategic location allows the amygdala to act as a spotlight, calling attention to sensory input that is new, exciting and important. In this way, it helps predict the timing and location of potential dangers, helping you dodge many of the things you dread. But those same connections also help you acquire the good things in life, by identifying and assessing rewards such as food, sex and other delights.
Though much more is known about its fear job, researchers are now vigorously gathering evidence about how the amygdala evaluates information and events for their reward potential. Recent studies offer clues to how the amygdala assigns value to rewards and adjusts that value as circumstances change. Other work provides insights into how the amygdala links actions and rewards, suggesting that the amygdala plays a role in goal-directed behavior. Still others are finding out how neural circuits in the highly connected human amygdala work with other brain structures to recognize good things and find ways to get them.
Toward the end of the article this nugget appears. It reminds us of how fuzzy the view can become the closer you get. The main point here is how important the amygdala is for assigning an emotional value, with the primary focus on pleasure and fear. In other words, we feel a need of pleasure and a fear of pain.
Rudebeck and his group trained monkeys to play a computer game in which they assessed the value of different rewards. The animals were shown two different pictures and allowed to choose between them. One picture brought a large juice reward, and the other brought a much smaller amount of juice. The animals chose the picture associated with the larger reward more than 98 percent of the time.
After turning off the amygdala in some animals, the scientists used single-cell recordings to listen in on brain cell chatter in the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex. To the team’s surprise, the monkeys still chose the picture with the “best” outcome on pretty much every trial, just as they had done with a working amygdala.
Though the animals continued choosing in the same manner, the scientists found that fewer neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex changed their firing rate in response to an expected reward. When looking at the animals’ emotional responses — as measured by pupil diameter and heart rate — researchers found that monkeys without a working amygdala didn’t react to a reward in the typical way, Rudebeck says. “They seemed to have no idea of what reward was, despite the fact that they could still choose perfectly well.”
The findings, reported at the neuroscience meeting, suggest that the brain uses various mechanisms to calculate how much something is worth. While the amygdala may be important for assigning an emotional value, Rudebeck says, it may not be the “be-all and end-all” in valuing objects.
(1) Of course, the most important thing from a Taoist point of view is nothing, which is beyond the grasp of science. With nothing, there is nothing to grasp. Fear and nothing are closely related, so anything science finds about the nature of fear may tell us something about nothing, if we read between the lines anyway. No need for that when we chew on chapter 40…