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Have you felt anxious even before you realized you were in danger?

Not only do researchers say it can happen, but some researchers have discovered why.

An international team of scientists lead by researchers from the Campus de Excelencia Internacional Moncloa (UCM-UPM) has shown that the amygdala – the fear center of the brain - is able to detect possible threats even before the neocortex is aware of the danger - the neocortex is the area of the brain responsible for higher executive functions, such as visual processing, rationalization, and language.

While doing research to better diagnose clinical conditions such epilepsy, researchers found that there are two pathways through which visual information is thought to travel to affective neural circuits. One goes straight from the thalamus to the amygdala. This "low-road" is composed of neurons of the magnocellullar class through which only low spatial frequency components are transmitted. The other pathway flows from the thalamus to the occipital cortex, where traditional visual processing begins. This "high-road" is composed by magno- as well as parvocellullar neurons, where both high and low spatial frequencies are carried.

The authors observed that the amygdala can work with just the coarse visual information within a picture if this picture conveys biologically-relevant information of threat, in this case the expression of fear in another person.

"We started from the hypothesis that, if the amygdala would show a rapid emotional response, this would be larger for the negative emotions and it may occur as long as low spatial frequency components are present in the visual input, as information would arrive from the pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus to the amygdala via magnocellullar axons, which do not carry high frequency spatial information.," points out Méndez-Bértolo, one of the main authors.

By recording intracranial from the amygdala the researchers were able to detect a very fast electrical response -- before 100ms -- to the low frequency components of fearful face stimuli. This was followed by responses -- considerably later -- in both amygdala and visual cortex to pictures with high or low spatial frequency components.

In a second experiment, patients viewed neutral and extremely unpleasant complex visual pictures and indicated whether the picture pertained to an indoor or outdoor scene. The results, compared with the previous experiment where only faces were being shown, indicated that such a fast emotional response was not present for more complex visual stimuli.

This new insight into how information travels between the visual system and emotional networks may help towards a better understanding of pathologies with elevated feelings of fear, such as in phobias and anxiety, where the amygdala is thought to play a fundamental role.

"Our work highlights the importance of ultra-rapid brain responses to threat-related visual stimuli. The responses in the amygdala are so fast that they could reflect an automatic or unconscious visual process, which might explain why fear can sometimes feel out of our voluntary control," according to Dr. Bryan Strange, from the Laboratory for Clinical Neuroscience of the UPM, which led the research with participation from the Basic Psychology I department of the UCM, in collaboration with the University of London (UK), the University of Geneva (Switzerland) and the Reina Sofia Centre for Alzheimer's Research (Madrid).

This research also explains that once we establish a fear, merely seeing the environment where the fear was established can cause an involuntary stress response – as part of our survival mechanism, the brain remembers where fears were established and then immediately warn us when we’re in a similar situation or circumstance. This ‘early warning’ system’s priority is that a response to danger is designed to be fast before being accurate (it’s safer to get out of danger immediately rather than remaining in harm’s way and taking the time to assess the danger before reacting).

The combination of established fear and ultra fast signaling explains why we can experience stress responses even before we realize we are in danger. These types of ‘early warning’ stress responses are generally referred to as ‘first fear’ reactions. They most often occur the moment we realize we’re in danger as well as can occur just by being in an environment where a fear was established.

If you’ve had fear responses before you realized you were in danger, these are the reasons why.


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Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated June 2016.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and coaching/counseling/therapy for problematic anxiety and its sensations and symptoms, including the latest in anxiety research about why you can experience fear even before you realize you are in danger.