A two-dimensional neuropsychology of defense: fear/anxiety and defensive distance

Neil McNaughton, Philip J Corr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

960 Citations (Scopus)


We present in this paper a picture of the neural systems controlling defense that updates and simplifies Gray's "Neuropsychology of Anxiety". It is based on two behavioural dimensions: 'defensive distance' as defined by the Blanchards and 'defensive direction'. Defensive direction is a categorical dimension with avoidance of threat corresponding to fear and approach to threat corresponding to anxiety. These two psychological dimensions are mapped to underlying neural dimensions. Defensive distance is mapped to neural level, with the shortest defensive distances involving the lowest neural level (periaqueductal grey) and the largest defensive distances the highest neural level (prefrontal cortex). Defensive direction is mapped to separate parallel streams that run across these levels. A significant departure from prior models is the proposal that both fear and anxiety are represented at all levels. The theory is presented in a simplified form that does not incorporate the interactions that must occur between non-adjacent levels of the system. It also requires expansion to include the dimension of escapability of threat. Our current development and these proposed future extensions do not change the core concepts originally proposed by Gray and, we argue, demonstrate their enduring value.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)285-305
Number of pages21
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2004


  • Amygdala
  • Animals
  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance Learning
  • Brain
  • Brain Mapping
  • Escape Reaction
  • Fear
  • Hippocampus
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamus
  • Inhibition (Psychology)
  • Neuropsychology
  • Periaqueductal Gray
  • Psychological Theory
  • Punishment
  • Septum of Brain

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