Many new studies of our brain and how it works are painting overly simplistic pictures, leading us to believe things are simpler than they are.
Brain-imaging studies have been painting an overly-simplistic picture of the how the brain works. It has even filtered into TV programming. In one episode of a popular legal drama, a character claimed to have figured out that a policeman was racist because his amygdala activated whenever he was shown pictures of black people, demonstrating his fear of them.
This simplified picture troubles many cognitive researchers, including Dr. William A. Cunningham of Ohio State University. It's true that the amygdala becomes increasingly active when people are afraid, but that's far from the whole story. The amygdala plays a much broader role in the brain's functioning than merely responding to fear.
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A recently published article co-authored by Cunningham reviews the published literature on the function of the amygdala. The article concludes that a major function of the amygdala is to process events that are of immediate concern to a person. Being in a scary situation is certainly an immediate concern. But so is food to a hungry person. And hungry people show increased amygdala activity when they're shown pictures of food. So do people with a high degree of empathy when they're shown pictures of other people in distress.