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How does the brain respond to danger?

In the face of danger, two brain circuits become active. One circuit feeds sensory information about the danger -- the sight and smell of a fire, for example -- to the cerebral cortex (the rippled outer layer of gray matter jacketing both brain hemispheres), the thinking part of the brain. The cerebral cortex evaluates this information and makes a rational judgment about it. For example, that judgment may determine that the fire is small, but tell you to get out of the house anyway and call the fire department.

The other circuit relays the sensory information to the amygdala, which sends impulses to the autonomic nervous system. This system triggers the "fight-or-flight" response even before the cerebral cortex has made sense of the information. Once activated, it increases heart rate, routes blood to muscles, releases stress hormones and glucose into the bloodstream, and spurs other responses to help you respond quickly to the danger.

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