We know that your amygdala is involved in detecting and responding to risk. As is often the case in neuroscience, researchers have learned a lot about the function of the amygdala by observing patients whose amygdalae (we have two – one in each hemisphere) were inactive due to damage or surgical removal. Without an active amygdala, one is constantly in harm’s way, unable to detect threats and avoid risks.
How would your behavior change if your amygdala were inactive?
One stunning example is one of the most famous adventure athletes, Alex Honnold, who has rock-climbed many of the world’s most difficult cliff faces – without a rope!
He is constantly asked, “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to die?” Neuroscientist Jane Joseph attempted to answer that question by scanning Honnold’s brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while he was shown shocking and scary images. She wondered if she would discover that he didn’t have an amygdala, but what she found was even more unusual. His amygdala was intact, but not reacting. While a (fellow climber) control subject’s amygdala “lit up like a Christmas tree” when viewing the images, Honnold’s remained quiet. Zero amygdala activation. That would explain his seeming fearlessness. But it is an anomaly to have a normal amygdala with no activation.
It’s likely that Alex Honnold’s genetics predisposed him to be both a high sensation seeker and calm in the face of danger. But Dr. Joseph LeDoux, who has studied fear for three decades, believes that Honnold’s experience – his consistent and systematic approach to climbing – rewired his fear response by diverting control to his prefrontal cortex. Honnold prepares intensely, reviewing his plan move by move and visualizing himself advancing past difficult and dangerous sections of a route. He also revisits each climb in a journal he keeps and in doing so, may be reconsolidating fearful memories into fearless ones. His process involves conscious effort and repeated exposure. This takes great control and focus and is an extreme example of the ability to change brain circuitry.
All neuroplastic change comes from consistent and persistent effort. The proactive listening, multi-sensory input and movement involved in iLs programs stimulate and integrate neural networks. As our friend Norman Doidge puts it in his book The Brain’s Way of Healing, this is because “mental activity is not only the product of the brain but also a shaper of it.”
Read more about how iLs works to reshape the brain.
You can read more of Alex Honnold’s story in the terrific article from the journal Nautilus.