Humboldtians in Focus

The Anatomy of Fear

Where do the emotions live and what happens when negative emotions like fear or stress find their own feet and stop being controllable? How do the emotions influence our supposedly rational decisions? Neuropsychiatrist Raymond Dolan finds the answers to these questions in the interaction between various regions of the human brain.

When Raymond Dolan is asked to summarise the nature of his work, he says that he explores the anatomy of emotions. Anatomy and emotions – at first sight, these two concepts don’t really seem compatible. Or is it possible to dissect emotions in a cold dissecting room? Even if we have not quite reached this stage yet, Raymond Dolan is certainly able to describe the location of emotions in the brain. How and where do emotions actually originate? How does our brain process them? And why do different people feel things so differently? These are the central questions that motivate Raymond Dolan, and this is certainly no easy task. After all, emotions are considered to be the one area of consciousness that is least easy to investigate – for the simple reason that emotional states are fundamentally subjective.

Individual nerve cells (green) have made contact (yellow) with neighbouring nerve cells. Molecular learning processes take place at these interfaces.
Individual nerve cells (green)
have made contact (yellow)
with neighbouring nerve cells.
Molecular learning processes
take place at these interfaces.
Foto: Dolan

Raymond Dolan is tracking them down, nevertheless – using approaches that are as intelligent as they are innovative. He is regarded as one of the pioneers of modern neurobehavioural research, a field that he has revolutionised by demystifying the origins of emotions with the help of image technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging. Using this method, he can, in a manner of speaking, watch the brain at work. The imaging techniques provide an optical presentation of the traces that emotions leave in our heads. When something moves us, a veritable cascade of events is set off in the brain. Particularly the nerve cells in the almond-shaped region of the brain called the amygdala, which is believed to be the place where the emotions are processed, flare up like mad. However, what is experienced is not only felt emotionally, but is also transferred into memory together with the emotions. It was this emotional memory that Raymond Dolan has been able to localise in the head: two regions of the brain are involved when emotions are turned into memories – the aforementioned amygdala and the hippocampus, which also plays a role in cognitive memory.

Paths of fear

If there is one emotion that is of particular interest to Raymond Dolan, it is fear. Above all, the neuropsychiatrist is keen to investigate the differences between inborn and acquired fear. Inborn fear, for instance, reveals itself when a person sees a poisonous snake. Acquired fear, on the other hand, may surface at the mere mention of a snake by someone else. Raymond Dolan was able to prove that inborn fear originates in the activation of the amygdala. It cannot be controlled, even if the subject knows that the snake is safely behind armoured glass, because in cases like this, the connection between consciousness and emotions is switched off. With acquired fear, the situation is different. In addition to the amygdala, the thalamus, the “gateway to consciousness”, also swings into action. Raymond Dolan was able to demonstrate that it is possible to block a reinforced emotional memory by administering pharmacologically active substances to test persons. One day, this may find its way into the treatment of individuals whose memories have become so deeply engraved by traumatic events that a posttraumatic stress disorder has ensued, as can be observed in victims of wars, accidents, terror attacks like that on 11 September 2001 or natural disasters such as the tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

“Inborn fear cannot be controlled, even when the subject knows that the snake is safely behind armoured glass.”

Recently, Raymond Dolan has embarked on yet another highly complex field – namely the question of how people actually make decisions. In the course of his work he has shown that rationality is in no way as rational as it is supposed to be. The decisionmaking process is strongly influenced by the emotions – even in purely commercial situations. As Dolan has been able to demonstrate, when economic decisions are being taken, it is not only the rational structures in the brain that are active, but the amygdala, which is responsible for the emotions, too.

Raymond Dolan primarily deals with known phenomena. We are all aware how we shudder when someone tells us something awful. And if we are honest, we also know that our intellect only rationalises decisions that have long since been made emotionally. Raymond Dolan’s achievement is to have discovered how and where these well-known phenomena are processed in the brain.

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Raymond Dolan Raymond Dolan

Professor Dr. Raymond Joseph Dolan has been working at University College London, United Kingdom, since 1996 and has held the Mary Kinross Chair since 2001. In 2007, he received the Max Planck Research Award, granted by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Max Planck Society, for his achieve ments in the field of neurobehavioural research.

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