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The brain is the ruler of our movements and the keeper of our thoughts. The brain is also joined to the body, and connection goes both ways. For example, if receptors indicate hunger, we find food to eat.
Research shows that those sensations do more than alert the brain to the body's immediate concerns. Studies of the heart give insights into the role the body's most basic processes play in explaining our experiences.
The activity of the heart can be divided into two phases: systole (when the heart muscle contracts and pumps out blood) and diastole (the heart relaxed and refills with blood.)
Systole decreases pain and control startle reflexes. Pressure sensors send signals of the heart's activity to inhibitory regions of the brain. Experiments show that people are more likely to forget the words they heard exactly at systole.
When you sense something from inside, it reduces the processing of external signals. When your heartbeat is going, it's loading up the seesaw on one side.
An experiment showed that when people were given a faint electrical stimulus to their finger, they were more likely to notice it during diastole and miss it during systole. When the heart pushes blood through your body during systole, it's possible to feel your pulse in your fingertips.
The systole doesn't inhibit the stimuli of fear. The systole not only activates inhibitory brain regions, but also the amygdala, an area that process the experience of fear. During systole, people can perceive fearful faces more intensely.
If you are in a state of fear, you don't want to be sensitive to pain. You want to run over broken glass to escape the threat. But you also want to be hyper-alert to danger in the environment.
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The main factor in how we experience fear has to do with the context.
When the "thinking" part of the brain gives feedback to the "emotional" brain, and we know it isn't really a threat, we can quickly shift from fear to enjoyment or excitement, such as in a haunted house during Halloween season. However, if you were walking in a dark alley at night and a stranger started following you, both your emotional and thinking areas of the brain would agree that the situation is dangerous and that it's time to escape.
The fear reaction starts in the brain's amygdala region and spreads through the body to prepare the body for the best defense or flight reaction. Fear also triggers the release of stress hormones and the sympathetic nervous system.
During a dangerous situation, the brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate, breathing accelerates, heart rate and blood pressure rise, blood flow and a stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase, and organs not vital in survival slow down, such as the gastrointestinal system.
Any kind of disruption in the functions of the amygdala in patients is associated with several anxiety disorders and phobias.
This includes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, alcohol, and drug abuse disorder.