What does Amygdala mean?

The word Amygdala comes from the Greek and means almond (also tonsil, though that is not relevant here). Anatomically, it describes two almond shaped groups of neurons located deep within the medial temporal lobes of the brain, roughly in the centre of the brain.

Part of the limbic system, the amygdala is thought to have a role in the mediation between emotional experience, cognitive functioning and perception. It has been shown in research to perform a primary role in the processing of memory and of our experience of our emotional life. Here we find ourselves in the vital territory of our personal way of experiencing, how our perceptions happen, are thought about and judged and then remembered. This is the territory that psychotherapy explores even if we are not specifically involved in brain functioning as such.

The amygdala has a substantial role in mental states and is related to many psychological disorders. It is especially involved in the emotions of fear, anger and aggression, and also trauma reactions. It is believed to have a significant role in sexuality, more specifically, in the way we experience pleasure from sensual experience. The medial part of the female amygdala plays an important role in pregnancy and appropriate coordination of the endocrine system. Stimulation of the amygdala will produce penile erection, sexual sensation, lustful feelings, and mental representations or memories of intercourse and orgasm. Further, the amygdala is involved in the way we experience pleasure from food, and other substances such as recreational drugs. Therefore, it is implicated in compulsive eating and addictive tendencies. Because the amygdala works in conjunction with other parts of the brain it is difficult to isolate separate functions independently.

Psychotherapy is really more concerned with the mind (and metaphors of the soul and heart) than the brain but all are inter-related and inter-dependent. We are being deliberately ironical in naming our consultancy after the amygdala. Also, we quite like the word itself with its almost Aboriginal sound and poetic associations with the Indian Sanskrit word mandala (meaning circle).

Perhaps it is worth adding that the more we discover about the amygdala, the more it raises questions. There is an air of mystery around the way the amygdala functions and this, too, fits our sense of human experience and its meaning. Maybe we are better off not foreclosing too many possibilities nor resolving too many mysteries of how experience happens and what it means to us. While expanding our knowledge is desirable, being too knowing seems to work against us. There is something essentially human about seeking the truth, perhaps especially the pursuit of our own personal, subjective truth. And this is the essential enterprise of therapy. So, we are as drawn by what isn’t known about the amygdala as we are to what is.