Amazing Amygdala

I found a bottle of perfume the other day and when I opened it I was transported immediately to the south of France, with lavender fields listing in the breeze, a soft sun high in the sky and a distinct lack of stress. For that small moment I had travelled miles.

A perfect reminder of another tiny thing to focus on this month – the amygdala – a small, almond-shaped part of the brain responsible for unconscious functions including emotion and memory. It may be small but it’s very old, sitting within the temporal lobe and firing off fast signals around the body. If you hear a bang and jump from your seat, that’s your amygdala trying to keep you safe by initiating the flight or fight response. And since it’s an unconscious reaction and so quick, it can make mistakes. (That door banging in the middle of the night was simply the wind after all, and not a malevolent ghost). 

The perfume scent rushed immediately to that region of my brain and before I could process what was happening, I had already arrived in that beautiful village in France. Then the slower mechanisms kicked in and my memory clicked into place. Unconscious and conscious systems working together to deposit me on lavender fields, even for a moment. Delicious. Scent, emotion and memory intertwined.

Isn’t the brain an incredible thing? Aren’t we beautifully made? Looking closely at our grey matter brings a real sense of awe. Surely every time we think a thought or take a step or speak a word is miraculous. 

Next time you catch a scent of perfume (or food or flowers) say a quick thank you to the tiny region of your brain that is quietly doing its thing. And then enjoy your brief moments of time travel that ensue. For my part, I’m off to France again.