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Episode 14: The social impact in fear learning – with Prof. Ewelina Knapska

By October 2, 2022No Comments

Episode 14 The social impact in fear learning – with Prof. Ewelina Knapska

We all have fears and most of us has some type of phobia. But where do fears come from? And how are we affected by each other? Since fear is vital for our survival it has an important part in our brains responses. We learn what things to fear and avoid from both experience and our environment. In this episode we learn more about the amygdala, an important area of the brain with a role in the processing of fear and social emotions.

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Main topic notes

  • Tell us about the brain structure called the amygdala [01:41]
  • More than a center for fear [04:40]
  • Fear learning and emotional contagion [07:10]
  • Empathy and fear [13:35]
  • Inheriting fear and trauma [16:45]
  • Exposure therapy [19:31]
  • Individual differences in empathy [23:00]
  • In-group/out-group bias [24:54]
  • Counteracting the in-group/out-group bias [30:00]

Main articles

    Keysers C, Knapska E, Moita MA, Gazzola V. Emotional contagion and prosocial behavior in rodents. Trends Cogn Sci. 2022 Aug;26(8):688-706. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2022.05.005. Epub 2022 Jun 3. PMID: 35667978.
    PuĊ›cian A, Bryksa A, Kondrakiewicz L, Kostecki M, Winiarski M, Knapska E. Ability to share emotions of others as a foundation of social learning. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2022 Jan;132:23-36. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2021.11.022. Epub 2021 Nov 24. PMID: 34838526.


  • So the amygdala is a small but important area of the brain, located one in each hemisphere. Traditionally it has been mostly connected to fear learning and its role in anxiety but we are learning more and more about its role in modulating attention, decision making and emotion learning for reward as well.
  • The amygdalae seem to have the role of telling the brain about things in the environment that seem important to pay attention to and to remember either to keep us safe or to maximize reward. This is where social learning comes in. You are more likely to keep yourself safe and reap as many benefits as possible from your environment if you make use of the valuable information others can bring.
  • If someone else close to you is visibly frightened then that gives you a clue there might be a threat nearby. This feeling of fear creeping into ourselves in that moment is called emotion contagion and it means that the amygdalae in ourselves activate when we see fear in others and this is a near instantaneous process.
  • Since social learning is an important aspect of both survival, joy and culture it is not surprising that it is part of how we come to fear things in life. As children we learn to fear many things by observing our parents’ and our peers. Sometimes we have fears that feel irrational to us, but we might have learned them from someone to whom it made sense to fear that thing.
  • We have a strong in group out group bias making us prone to notice differences between ourselves and others. This negatively affects our behavior towards people we perceive as outgroup members. To counteract this bias it is important to be aware of it and to actively seek to find similarities and cultivate compassionate behavior instead.

More from Prof. Ewelina Knapska

Laboratory of Emotions Neurobiology – Nencki institute