The amygdala is the center of our emotions. It is a large almond-shaped structure located in the Limbic system, where the lower brain meets the brainstem. There are neural connections that transfer emotions from the amygdala to the cortex, and similar pathways transmitting rational thoughts back to the Amygdala. However, there are more visceral connections than rational ones, which helps to explain why we are such emotional creatures. When I was a boy, I remember being afraid at night. I was anxious about the unknown, about death and dying, about larger issues that lay outside of my control. Although at the time, I didn’t realize it, I recognize now that these feelings were irrational. Any child psychologist will tell you that this experience is completely normal and is typically outgrown by the time a child is about nine years old. My hunch is that the neural pathways leading from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex are not yet fully functional in a young child. As emotions mature, due to interaction with the ‘thinking’ brain, the irrational fears begin to dissolve, and finally disappear with the onset of adolescence. Now that I am approaching the age of sixty, the irrational fears and anxieties have returned. Throughout life, I have been a dedicated sleeper. I now spend a portion of each night lying awake, anxious, fearing degradation, destruction and doom. I am fortunate. My world is meaningful. I enjoy life. Some of the anxiety, of course, is psychological. Mortality is around the corner. Old age creeps up. Loss of loved ones and friends is a reality that must soon be faced. But I also suspect that the brain connections between the amygdala and the cortex have begun to weaken; their timely dissolution confusing my sleep patterns, forcing me to realize too soon that I must prepare to become a child again.
A Collection of Writings on Nature, Science, and Art by John Holland