The frontal lobes are located in the cortex and are responsible for learning and problem solving. The cerebral cortex is the thinking or strategy center of the brain, where logic and judgment reside. In addition to being rational, the cortex also has many other complex functions including memory, attention, perceptual awareness, language, and consciousness. “The ability to learn from experience requires events to be registered in the prefrontal cortex, compared with other experiences, and then evaluated for an appropriate response.” (ASCA). Early childhood trauma has also been associated with a reduced size of the brain cortex, meaning the amygdala of the brain will spot triggers and cause a person to automatically react before having a logical thought process. The reduced cortex size may affect IQ and the ability to regulate emotions.
Within the limbic system, also known as the emotional center of the brain is the amygdala; which is responsible for activating the fight or flight reactions and determining whether information received should go to the limbic system or the cortex. The amygdala is the watchdog of the brain. It uses the majority of its neurons to look for negative events and delegate a response to prepare the body for threats. It holds more power than the cortex so if incoming data triggers enough of an emotional charge, the amygdala can bypass the normal rational pathway and send the data to the limbic system. The limbic system performs an emotional analysis and memory review of the information received and determines whether the current stressor is one that has been mastered in the past and successfully adapted to, not a threat at all, or a clear and present danger. All of this internal activity occurs in milliseconds. (Stoppler).
The amygdala has receptors which regulate fear memory consolidation meaning once the amygdala sounds its alarm, negative events and experiences quickly get stored in the memory as a “trigger,” or reinforce past triggers that have been saved. “It stores all the details surrounding the threat or danger including: the sights, sounds, odors, time of day, weather, etc.” (Towey). Later, these sights, sounds, and other details of the event can become stimuli and may trigger fear. A person who has experienced a frightening event during a thunderstorm may again feel fearful or anxious during a thunderstorm, without consciously understanding why, but it may be because an event has been stored as a trigger. Since these cues were associated with previous danger, the brain may see them as a predictor of new threats making one react on impulse. (Towey).
The hippocampus assists in the transfer of information to the cortex. The hippocampus is vulnerable to stress hormones, in particular the hormones released by the amygdala. “When those hormones reach a high level, they suppress the activity of the hippocampus and it loses its ability to function.” (ASCA). Due to stress, the body is not able to process triggers as one that has been adapted to successfully, vital information never reaches the cortex, and thus logical thinking is blocked.