Would you choose a lobotomy over fear?

There have been plenty of treatments for phobias over the years, and lobotomies aren’t the newest fad for this. However, one had recently been successful, as a 44-year old man lost a piece of his amygdala and, happily, his aversion to the creepiest of our little friends: the spider.

Though the surgery was not originally intended to cure the man’s arachnophobia, the side effect seems to be a welcome one. The procedure, known as a left temporal mesial lobectomy, was merely intended to deal with an abnormality in his left amygdala that doctors decided was the cause of his recent bout of seizures. Although the abnormality and accompanying seizures were part of his preexisting (and rather uncommon) condition known sarcoidosis, the bonus results are a happy outcome.

Lobotomy. Graphic by Jilletta Becker
Lobotomy. Graphic by Jilletta Becker

The amygdala is responsible for our emotional responses, so it isn’t new information that this ability to cut out someone’s fear is possible. However, this is the first documented case in which a specific fear was completely removed from a human being through surgery. Researchers are still not sure how exactly this was possible or how they might be able to recreate the results, but it seems to depend at least partially on what type of fear is being targeted.

Arachnophobia is a specific fear triggered by a specific image or idea which leads to panic. When it comes to more general anxieties or fear, scientists do not yet know if the same results could be achieved.

In another case, however, a 44-year old mother was able to lose all her fear after illness permanently damaged her amygdala. Scientists have been studying her for over 20 years, yet despite their research, have not come to fully understand how the disease worked to only eliminate one emotion from the woman, despite her entire amygdala being damaged by the disease.

Perhaps this isn’t a time for science to be too involved in recreating a situation, though, and perhaps this is why it doesn’t seem to be something anyone is working too hard to develop. Even though it sounds like a great relief to feel no fear, the woman has recounted several stories in which she was in danger due to her inability to recognize the emotion. The same could perhaps be true and therefore an issue for the 44-year old man who no longer fears our creepy, eight-legged friends.

Without our emotions to drive us and warn us when necessary, are we still fully capable humans? Perhaps it’s better not to find out.