More About the Amazing Amygdala

Doctor hands surrounded figure of human brain shape

The more I learn about the brain, the more in awe I am: the way it is structured, the way it develops, what influences it, what can hurt it, and how it can heal. In one of the earliest conferences I attended where Bruce Perry was the keynote, he shared that the brain is the only organ in the body that is so underdeveloped. We are born with a fully functioning heart, liver, kidneys, digestive system, etc. but the brain of a newborn is totally dependent on outside stimulation in order to develop to its fullest potential.

The latest book I am deeply impressed with is Louis Cozolino’s The Pocket Guide to Neuroscience for Clinicians. We use two of Cozolino’s books in our LGI trauma trainings: The Neuroscientists of Human Relationships and The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy. Our participants are amazed at how much as non-clinicians and non-neuroscientists they can actually learn through his excellent materials.

graphic of brain

In previous blogs I have described six very important structures of the brain: the brainstem, which maintains our basic life functions; the midbrain or diencephalon, which is a reptilian part responsible for things like appetite and sleep patterns; the limbic system which houses our emotions; and the cortex, which is the logical, thinking part of our brain; the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that stores and files conscious, cognitive information being inputted from the outside; and the amygdala, one of the more ancient structures in the brain that stores memories, especially those that are related to frightening experiences. Bessel van der Kolk calls the amygdala the smoke detector of our brains. As soon as it senses any kind of danger, it sets off a firestorm of reactions to promote an immediate response intended to ward off any threats to our well-being. It has a very long memory and its earliest experiences are the most powerful.

Cozolino invited his readers to think about how adults often play the game of peekaboo with their children. He describes the process where the adult hides their face with their hands, then suddenly exposes their face saying “Peekaboo!” with an exaggerated and enthusiastic smile and high-pitched voice. Typically, the baby’s eyes open wide they give a big smile and sometimes they even laugh. And of course, the baby wants this repeated over and over, with building anticipation every time the adult covers their face.

Here’s the fascinating brain information: “First, the surprise and big smile stimulated metabolic activity in both the baby’s and the parent’s brain, delivering extra glucose and oxygen to support learning. We both experience surges of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin triggered by our mutual enjoyment, making us feel good and making us want to do it again and again. Epigenetic processes within the baby’s brain trigger neuro- anatomical growth that supports a sense of joy and creates the building blocks of long-term well-being. Changes in the parent’s brain support deepening attachment, physical health, and emotional well-being.… A good example of this is the epigenetic translation of these pleasurable moments into the building of endorphin receptors on the baby’s amygdala. The more of these receptors we build, the more the endorphins in our nervous system keep the amygdala down-regulated, decreasing our vulnerability to stress, anxiety, and fear.

This is one of the many physiological variables related to qualities like ego strength, grit, or resilience.

This is a stark contrast to the situation of the many children who lack quality caregivers, attentive others, or positive stimulation. Within the brains of these children, opposite biochemical and neuro- anatomical processes occur that lead them to be more vulnerable to stress. This is why children with a great number of adverse social experiences during childhood are far more likely to experience psychological, physical, and adaptational difficulties later in life. Our social experiences are translated, for better and worse, into the neurobiological structure of our brains intend to stabilize over time.”

Brain graphic

Who knew that the simple game of peekaboo was so profoundly influencing the architecture of a child’s brain, and that that influence carries into the child’s life, helping them be more resilient and less stressed? I don’t think I’ll ever look at peekaboo in the same way. I suspect that saying, “So big!” in an enthusiastic voice with arms extended into the air does similar things for brain development. How wonderful when parents and other caregivers can realize they are playing such an important role in developing the internal infrastructure of their child’s brain.

Invitation for Reflection:

  1. How does this information affect how you think about simple games parents play with their infants? Can you envision all the magic going on in a child’s brain, especially their amygdala, during these playful interactions?
  2. How does this information influence your overall sense around how amazing the brain is?
  3. Are there people in your circles with whom you can share this information to encourage them to be even more attentive to their infants and young children?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute