Moreover, reasoned analysis of the superficial nature of these structural similarities has very little influence over the fear center of the brain and seldom dissipates the power of the fearful memory. Yet the fear center has incredible influence over the reasoning process and also over the way memories are shaped. As UCLA research psychologist Dr. Michael Fanselow describes, "The available evidence suggests the amygdala learns and stores information about fear-arousing events but also modulates storage of other types of information in different brain regions" (emphasis added). When human beings developed a higher order of thinking, we gained an advantage in being able to anticipate emerging threats. We gained the ability to conceptualize threats instead of just perceiving them. But we also gained the ability to conceptualize imaginary threats. And when groups of people are persuaded to conceptualize these imaginary threats, they can activate the fear response as powerfully as would real threats.
This ability to conceive of something that activates the amygdala and starts the fear response is particularly significant because of another important and closely related phenomenon, called "vicarious traumatization." If someone, such as a family member or an individual with whom we identify has experienced trauma, that person's feelings can be communicated to us even though we didn't directly experience the traumatic event.
Recent research proves that the telling of traumatic stories to those who feel linked by identity to the victims of trauma -- whether the shared identity is ethnic, religious, historical, cultural, linguistic, tribal, or nationalistic -- can actually produce emotional and physical responses in the listener similar to those experienced by the victims. Indeed, physiologists have recently discovered a new class of neurons, called "mirror neurons," that create a powerful physical capacity for empathy. Dr. Ramachandran described the startling significance of this new finding to me:
It has long been known that neurons in this region (a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate that receives a major input from the amygdala) fire when you poke the patient to cause pain—so they were called "pain sensing neurons" on the assumption that they alert the organism to potential danger -- leading to avoidance. But researchers in Toronto found that in human patients some of these cells responded not only when the patient himself was poked with a needle -- as expected -- but also fired equally when the patient watched another patient being poked. These neurons (mirror neurons) were dissolving the barrier between the "self" and others -- showing that our brains are actually "wired up" for empathy and compassion. Notice that one isn't being metaphorical in saying this; the neurons in question simply can't tell if you or the other person is being poked. It's as if the mirror neurons were doing a virtual reality simulation of what's going on in the other person's brain -- thereby almost "feeling" the other's pain. (I call them Dalai Lama cells.)