We have an extraordinary person living amongst us; she goes by the initials SM and suffers from a rare condition that has severely damaged her amygdala. She has been working with a group of neuroscientists who have just published a fascinating paper on her fear responses, or lack thereof.
The amygdala is an evolutionarily ancient brain structure — it is present in fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. Its presence in each of these taxa indicates it was present in the last common ancestor that gave rise to these groups. Its location in the deep center of the brain tells us something about its age and importance:
The amygdala is part of the limbic system that generates emotions and is commonly associated with fear responses — obviously an important adaptation in a world filled with predators. An overactive or under-regulated amygdala is associated with debilitating phobias.
Here is an excerpt from the study’s summary:
To provoke fear in SM, we exposed her to live snakes and spiders, took her on a tour of a haunted house, and showed her emotionally evocative films. On no occasion did SM exhibit fear, and she never endorsed feeling more than minimal levels of fear. SM repeatedly demonstrated an absence of overt fear manifestations and an overall impoverished experience of fear. The findings support the conclusion that the human amygdala plays a pivotal role in triggering a state of fear and that the absence of such a state precludes the experience of fear itself.
There are of course many theorists of religion who argue that supernatural beliefs are explicable as rationalized fear responses. Although it seems unlikely that fear alone is capable of generating supernatural beliefs, there is no doubt that all religions use fear to justify and sustain belief formations. Religions, in other words, ride on a biological substrate of fear.
It would be most interesting to learn about SM’s supernatural or religious beliefs. Is she religious? If so, how does her lack of fear contribute to her religious understanding? Does she respond to teachings about sin, retribution, and damnation? Are demons and devils meaningful concepts for her?
It just might be the case that if fear is knocked out, so is religion. Alternatively, it might be the case that SM is capable of understanding religion only in a positive sense, and that any teachings or concepts dependent on fear are meaningless to her.