Fear begins with the startle response. It is the fastest response (20 milliseconds) of the mind to danger through a direct amygdala fear pathway as reported by Joseph E. LeDoux.
He identified a second route (300 milliseconds) through the reasoning processes of the cortex, which can proceed to still a sudden onset of fear. Mere movements, sounds or images can trigger the fearful startle response. The reflex is present from birth.
When a newborn senses a possibility of falling, her back arches and her arms and legs flail out. Doctors test the reflex to be sure of an infant's nervous system by simulating a sense of falling by allowing its head to drop slightly.
The startle signals from the amygdala activates the sympathetic system, which heightens emotional arousal. Later, the cortical signals may energize the parasympathetic system, dampening down emotional tension.
Unthinking fear set off by the startle response may be stilled by the reasoned cortical signals, such as when a coiled snake is identified to be just a garden hose.
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