Sunday, August 4, 2013

Right in the Amygdala

Have you ever turned the television on at the precise moment that a hideous face spans the whole screen?  Well that’s what happened to me last week. I had to get out of bed to retrieve the remote that was mysteriously projected in the direction of the image.  I used my hand as a blinder to block my vision of the over-the-top scary face while feeling around the floor, but the sounds were still there. Growling, snarling, screeching, the grinding tone of claws unsheathed and the screams, the terrifying screams. By the time I found the remote my heart rate had doubled and I was in a state of panic. My husband walked in at the moment I was able to turn the television off.

“What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I faked a relaxed smile and waved my hand. “Nah, I’m fine, just watching the shopping channel.”
He gave me a skeptical look. “What did you buy now?”
“Nothing,” I chirped before hopping back into bed, pulling the magic, all-inclusive, security guaranteed down comforter over my head. I wished him a muffled good night and imagined myself on a tropical island lying on the warm sand, watching fluffy clouds float by and enjoying the distant sounds of steel drums playing a calypso beat.

When I woke up the next morning I began wondering why is it that the human being is the only species that likes to scare itself? Not just a simple ‘boo’ that might cause a slight knee-jerk fidgety kind of reaction but the all encompassing wide eyed, pupil-dilating, flared nostril, dry mouth, sweaty palms, trembling, massive increase in pulse rate kind of reaction. 

After doing a little research, I found that our fear responses have been traced to an almond shaped appendage located deep in the brain's medial temporal lobe. It receives input from all of our senses and then sends messages to the limbic system which triggers the fight or flight response. Incidentally, I could qualify for frequent flyer miles.

I decided to conduct a fear test of my own in order to discover more about how this fear circuit works. Since I am familiar with my husband’s responses to certain stimuli, I thought he would make the perfect subject.  The first thing I had to do is build an atmosphere of tension.  My husband is a very laid back type so it would take a lot of ingenuity on my part to set the stage. A softhearted soul if there ever was one. I often refer to him as a concrete covered marshmallow. He loves kids, animals and food. If pizza were a woman, I would be jealous. I chose food to be the application for my controlled experiment. 

Sandwich architecture is one of my husband's specialties. If Subway were to get ahold of some of his blueprints they would be a lot more popular than they are now. I made the creamy crisp slaw that he likes to refer to as the perfect counterpoint adding crunch and zing to the layers of fresh deli turkey, Parmesan sprinkled tomato slices and the evenly sliced (measured with a digital micrometer) sharp Provolone. The thick sourdough bread gets grilled on the insides to keep from getting soggy from the generous dollops of seasoned mayonnaise. Strips of bacon and avocado are lovingly placed on the stack, the slaw and a quick shake of salt and pepper before the final piece of sourdough.

The kitchen's aroma of fresh bread, bacon and cheese wafted into the next room where I devised my plan. I wasn't sure I would be able to pull it off. He was just finishing a masterpiece when I asked him if he would have a look at my computer. I told him it had a strange error message on it and I needed to use it right away.

"I don't see any message." He called out.
"Okay, just sit down at the table and I'll bring you your sandwich."

From his place at the table he watched, his eyes never left the sandwich. About half way there my flip flop twisted and I fell forward. I juggled the plate with both hands. I heard him gasp. The atmosphere of tension had been created. In the next moment the sandwich slid from the plate and fell on the floor. He screamed. I have never heard him do that. His Amygdala was hard at work alerting his limbic system to react. Yes, his eyes were wide, his pupils dilated, perspiration instantly appeared on his forehead and his breathing was labored. He rose to his feet but his knees buckled and he plopped back down, shocked silent by the sight of all his labor scattered across the floor. He didn't even notice me examining his vital signs because he was in grief.

In hindsight, I should have spent more time thinking this through. Even after I told him that what fell on the floor was a sandwich double and the real one, the one that he had spent so much time building, was safe and intact he was still angry. I have learned that anger follows induced fear and never mess with a man's sandwich.


  1. You'd better be careful. You're playing with forces far beyond your control. Civilizations have risen and fallen depending on how they treat sandwiches.

    1. You're absolutely right, Stephen. No more sandwich experiments. :)

  2. LMAO - my husband would have screamed too. Men are attached to their food, never mess with a man's meal!

    I can't watch horror movies. I never outgrew having nightmares after watching scary shoes. So, it's comedy for me :)

    1. And I have some very scary shoes in my closet! Thanks for reading Aleta and I love that it made you laugh. Laughter is the best medicine. <3