Definition of Amygdala Scripts

‘’Amygdala script’’ is a term that references the neurobiological underpinnings central to many psychological problems. It was first introduced in the book “What Freud Didn’t Know[1].

==Definition and Description of Amygdala Script==

It has long been understood that when a series of repeatedly painful events occur; or when one especially traumatic incident happens, the amygdala region of the brain mediates the creation of a particular type of memory[2], sometimes referred to as an “emotion memory”. By 2009 a variety of characteristics attributed to these memories had been discovered, and this, along with the unfolding realization of the far-reaching consequences that such memories hold for human behavior, led to the concept of “amygdala script” – a term that more accurately and comprehensively mirrors our present understanding of this phenomenon. In particular, such memories are: very durable – lasting even for a lifetime[3]; recalled unconsciously[4] – the person experiencing such a memory will usually not recognize it as a memory; and while amygdala scripts include an emotion component[5] ; they also include a cognitive or image component (sometimes referred to as an “implicit memory”)[6]. This latter component – the image component – tends to distort interpretations of present circumstances by instigating an unconscious (“automatic” in neurobiological parlance) assumption that what is occurring presently during the ‘recall’ of such a memory is very similar to what seemed true at the time when such a memory was being encoded[7].

In short, because amygdala mediated memories serve to unconsciously “script” how one feels, thinks and behaves when in the presence of those circumstances that activate or trigger this type of memory, we can appropriately term these unconscious memories “amygdala scripts”.

==Examples of Amygdala Scripts==

An example of an amygdala script could be a child who once felt close to but is later repeatedly ridiculed and rejected by an older sibling who often calls the child “a loser”, not worthy of being included in play. The resulting amygdala script is triggered when that child grows into an adult, In social situations he tends to feel anxious (the emotion component), harbors an assumption that people won’t find him likeable (image component), and has no idea that what he experiences under these present triggering circumstances is an activated, unconscious childhood memory. Left unaddressed this tendency might well haunt him for the rest of his life.

Another example would be an adult who grew up in an alcoholic family where her parents habitually ignored or minimized events that she accurately perceived as very emotionally painful to herself and her siblings. In her present life, during times of stress (for example, when financial difficulties arise, or she or a family member is criticized), she might tend to become unduly anxious and angry (emotion component), believing that she is the only person who truly appreciates and is able to respond to what she perceives as threatening life events (the image component). The image component might also lead her to ignore or discount the support offered by others; she assumes that she alone will be able to recognize and respond to a threatening situation – an inaccurate assumption now, but accurate for her experiences as a child.

Another example might be a child who is physically or emotionally abused and grows up to exhibit exaggerated and distorted inferences when faced with even mild criticism. For someone with this kind of script, a mild rebuke might result in his being fearful and/or angry (emotion component) and lead him to believe that he must react in an exaggerated, perhaps even threatening manner to safeguard himself (defensive behavior that results from the image component) from the perceived possibility that he is in danger of being humiliated or otherwise harmed (the image component). All of his overreactions might, at least in the heat of the moment, appear to him to be accurate and apropos to the present triggering situation (unconscious).

==Mechanisms in amygdala scripts that cause cognitive distortions==

Cognitive distortions entail misinterpreting present circumstances in a manner that supports an exaggerated or otherwise distorted assumption about oneself and one’s circumstances. A mechanism for cognitive distortions in amygdala scripts is found in the tendency of an amygdala-mediated emotional response (the emotion component of an amygdala script) to “capture” attention resulting in inappropriate assumptions[8]. Aspects of an immediate situation that lack emotional relevance are discounted, skewing the experience toward an exaggerated sense of threatening or disheartening emotional significance. For example, a minor setback at work – an occurrence that presumably would suggest a mild emotional reaction – might, while an amygdala script is active, be experienced as a disproportionately worrisome and portentous event, resulting in an emotional intensity more appropriate to the early situations wherein the amygdala script was first being learned, rather than to the much milder situation that presently exists.

Another source of cognitive distortion arises when the gist or general outline of earlier learning situations – when an amygdala-mediated emotional response is first being recorded – is unconsciously retrieved along with the emotional response[9]. Through this process an old “implicit memory” (the image component) becomes overlaid upon present circumstances, biasing assessments of that immediate situation with problematic assumptions, more appropriate to the original learning situations. For example, a woman might find herself with a plethora of relationships characterized by her predominantly being in the role of caretaker. This hearkens back to her childhood experiences, when she strived valiantly, and often ineffectively, to safeguard her siblings from the pain of their parents’ unhappiness and hurtful behavior. In her present life she similarly agonizes over, and heroically attempts to save, friends and lovers whom she sees as in need of rescue. (Another outcome of this could be that her group of friends and partners tend disproroprtionately to be ‘caretakees’ who are attracted to her caretaking tendencies.)

Combined, these aspects of an activated amygdala-mediated memory – an immediate situation colored inaccurately by an exaggerated emotional response, and misconstrued assumptions about present circumstances –result in at least a transitory distortion of reality. Left unaddressed, an activated amygdala script creates a backdrop of emotion and imagery that scripts a person’s feelings, assumptions and ultimately his or her behavior in ways that inhibit one’s abilities and reduces one’s psychological wellbeing.

==Amygdala scripts and common psychological problems==

Amygdala scripts are deemed to play a pivotal role in most common psychological problems: both those problems that are clinical and diagnosable, and the more everyday variety that, although common and “subclinical”, serve nevertheless to reduce a person’s life satisfaction, and also impair his or her abilities. One area of support for this theory is the striking similarities between amygdala scripts and psychological problems both of which are:

> stubbornly durable[10],

> easily activated

> often derived from childhood experiences[11]

> manifest as inappropriate emotional reactions and cognitive distortions.

That amygdala scripts underlie many psychological problems is further bolstered by neurobiological research that points to the central role that the amygdala plays in a variety of psychological problems including depression[12], anxiety[13], and borderline personality disorder[14] .

==Amygdala scripts, psychotherapy and self-help==

The concept of amygdala scripts offers a succinct way to depict a complicated set of neurobiological and psychological phenomena. More importantly, the neurobiological model that underlies the theory of amygdala scripts suggest important ways in which established therapeutic interventions can be better targeted and substantially stream-lined to catalyze clinical and self-promoted positive psychological change. A “Three-step Practice” is an example of such an innovation. It has been successfully utilized in clinical settings and as a self-help intervention[15].

A much more detailed description of amygdala scripts, and of amygdala script theory can be found elsewhere[16]

What is perhaps the most important aspect of “amygdala script” theory is that it has become the basis for streamlining self-help and psychotherapeutic tools (for more on this click here) .


[1] Tim Stokes Ph.D., Rutgers University Press 2010

[2] LeDoux, J. E. (1989). Indelibility of subcortical emotional memories. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, l1, 238-243.

[3] Phelps, E. A. (2004). Human emotion and memory: Interactions of the amygdala and hippocampal complex. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 14, 198–202;

LeDoux, J. E. (1989). Indelibility of subcortical emotional memories. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, l1, 238-243.

[4] Carlsson, K., Petersson, K. M., Lundqvist, D, Karlsson, A., Ingvar, M., & Öhman, A.  (2004) Fear and the amygdala: Manipulation of awareness generates differential cerebral responses to phobic and fear-relevant (but nonfeared). Stimuli Emotion, 4, 340-;

Dolan, R. J. ; Vuillemier, Patrick(2003). Amygdala automaticity in emotional processing. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,  985 , 348–355.

[5] LeDoux, J. E. (1989). Indelibility of subcortical emotional memories. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, l1, 238-243.

Phelps, E. A. (2004). Human emotion and memory: Interactions of the amygdala and hippocampal complex. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 14, 198–202.

[6] Adolphs, R., Denburg, N, L., & Tranel, D. (2001).  The amygdala’s role in long-term declarative memory for gist and detail. Behavioral Neuroscience, 115, 983-992,

Fenker, D. B., Schott, B. H., Richardson-Klavehn, A., Heinze, H., & Düzel, E. (2005). Recapitulating emotional context: Activity of amygdala, hippocampus and fusiform cortex during recollection and familiarity. European Journal of Neuroscience, 21, 1993-1999.

Jacobs & Nadel (1998). Neurobiology of reconstructed memories. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law December 4, 1110-1134,

[7] Phelps, E. A. (2006). Emotion and cognition: Insights from studies of the human amygdala. In S.  T. Fiske, A. E. Kazdin, D. L.  & D. L. Schacter (Eds). Annual review of psychology (Vol 57). (pp. 27-53). Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews.

[8] Phelps, E. A. (2006). Emotion and cognition: Insights from studies of the human amygdala. In S.  T. Fiske, A. E. Kazdin, D. L.  & D. L. Schacter (Eds). Annual review of psychology (Vol 57). (pp. 27-53). Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews.

[9] Adolphs, R., Denburg, N, L., & Tranel, D. (2001).  The amygdala’s role in long-term declarative memory for gist and detail. Behavioral Neuroscience, 115, 983-992,

Anand, A., & Shekar, A. (2003). Brain imaging studies in mood and anxiety disorders. Special Emphasis on the Amygdala. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 985, 370–388.

Fenker, D. B., Schott, B. H., Richardson-Klavehn, A., Heinze, H., & Düzel, E. (2005). Recapitulating emotional context: Activity of amygdala, hippocampus and fusiform cortex during recollection and familiarity. European Journal of Neuroscience, 21, 1993-1999.

Jacobs & Nadel (1998). Neurobiology of reconstructed memories. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law December 4, 1110-1134,

1998)

[10] Denburg, N. L., Buchanan, T. W. Tranel, D., Adolphs, R. (2003) Evidence for preserved emotional memory in normal older persons. Emotion, 3, 239-253.

[11] Cicchetti, Dante  (2004) An Odyssey of Discovery: Lessons Learned through Three Decades of Research on Child Maltreatment. American Psychologist. 59(8), Nov 731-741353.

[12] Dannlowski, U., Ohrmann, P., Bauer, J., Kugel, H., Arolt, V., Heindel, W., et al. (2007). Amygdala reactivity to masked negative faces is associated with automatic judgmental bias in major depression: A 3 T fMRI study. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, 32, 423-429.

De Raedt, R. (2006). Does neuroscience hold promise for the further development of behavior therapy? The case of emotional change after exposure in anxiety and depression. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology , 47 , 225–236.

Ramel, W., Goldin, P. R., Eyler, L. T., Brown, G. G., Gotlib, I. H., & McQuaid, J. R. (2007). Amygdala reactivity and mood-congruent memory in individuals at risk for depressive relapse. Biological Psychiatry, 61, 231-239.

[13] De Raedt, R. (2006). Does neuroscience hold promise for the further development of behavior therapy? The case of emotional change after exposure in anxiety and depression. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology , 47 , 225–236.

Corcoran, K. A., & Quirk, G. J. (2007). Recalling safety: Cooperative functions of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus in extinction. CNS Spectrums, 12, 200-206.

Green, M. J., & Malhi, G. S. (2006). Neural mechanisms of the cognitive control of emotion. Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 18, 144-153.

[14] Beblo, T., Driessen, M., Mertens, M., Wingenfeld, K., Piefke, M., Rullkoetter, N. et al. (2006) Functional MRI correlates of the recall of unresolved life events in borderline personality disorder. Psychological Medicine, 36, 845-856

[15] {linked to Book page}What Freud Didn’t Know: A Three-step Practice for Emotional Well-being through Neuroscience and Psychology by Tim Stokes, Rutgers University Press January 2010 (http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/acatalog/What_Freud_Didnt_Know.html)

[16] ibid