Something as small as seeing pictures of others being loved and cared for silences our brain’s response to threat, a new study has found.

Being reminded that you are loved and cared for, even through pictures, makes you feel less threatened. Image via Imgion.

The amygdalae, listed in the Gray’s Anatomy textbook as the nucleus amygdalæ, are a group of nuclei in the brain involved in  the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. The amygdala is also considered to be the core of the “threat monitor” in humans. This study showed that when individuals are briefly presented pictures of others receiving emotional support and affection, the amygdala doesn’t respond to threats, or it gives out a less intense response. This means that when we are reminded of being loved and cared for, or even when we see that others are loved and cared for, we tend to not feel threatened anymore. This has important potential implications, for example in people staying in abusive relationships, or in gangs where members feel like they’re cared for.

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Forty two people participated in the study, which involved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brain response. The fMRI allows researchers to measure brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow. The study also revealed that anxious people are more likely to feel less threatened, which makes a lot of sense. It’s especially anxious people that need to be reminded that they are loved and cared for. Dr Anke Karl of Psychology at the University of Exeter, senior researcher of the study, said:

“A number of mental health conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are characterized by hypervigilance to threatening information, which is associated with excessive negative emotional responses, amygdala activation and a restricted ability to regulate these emotions and self-sooth. These new research findings may help to explain why, for example, successful recovery from psychological trauma is highly associated with levels of perceived social support individuals receive. We are now building on these findings to refine existing treatments for PTSD to boost feelings of being safe and supported in order to improve coping with traumatic memories.”

Previous studies have shown that we feel less pain when we are reminded we are loved, but this is the first study to show we also feel less threatened.

Now, researchers want to study other bodily reactions (heart rate, sweat response) to better understand the relationship between how we feel and how our body reacts.

“Furthermore, participants who received attachment-security priming showed attenuated amygdala activation in both the emotional faces and dot-probe tasks. The current findings demonstrate that variation in state and trait attachment security modulates amygdala reactivity to threat.”, the researchers write.