Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Coolby Taylor Clark
Nerves make us bomb job interviews, first dates, and SATs. With a presentation looming at work, fear robs us of sleep for days. It paralyzes seasoned concert musicians and freezes rookie cops in tight situations. And yet not everyone cracks. Soldiers keep their heads in combat; firemen rush into burning buildings; unflappable trauma doctors juggle patient after
Nerves make us bomb job interviews, first dates, and SATs. With a presentation looming at work, fear robs us of sleep for days. It paralyzes seasoned concert musicians and freezes rookie cops in tight situations. And yet not everyone cracks. Soldiers keep their heads in combat; firemen rush into burning buildings; unflappable trauma doctors juggle patient after patient. It's not that these people feel no fear; often, in fact, they're riddled with it.
In Nerve, Taylor Clark draws upon cutting-edge science and painstaking reporting to explore the very heart of panic and poise. Using a wide range of case studies, Clark overturns the popular myths about anxiety and fear to explain why some people thrive under pressure, while others falter-and how we can go forward with steadier nerves and increased confidence.
"This is an improbably charming and witty book about a disturbing and flummoxing subject. More than that, though, Taylor Clark has made me less afraid of being afraid."-Tom Bissell, author of Extra Lives
This is an improbably charming and witty book about a disturbing and flummoxing subject. More than that, though, Taylor Clark has made me less afraid of being afraid."-Tom Bissell, author of Extra LivesTom Bissell, Extra Lives"
[A] smart and entertaining account...Nerve is intelligent, very well-written and generally persuasive."John Strawn, The Oregonian"
Hilarious, approachable and certainly enlightening... Clark manages to make Nerve pack a seriously entertaining punch... it's clever, relevant and amusing."Katelyn Schmidt, Tampa Tribune"
Intelligent and sharp-witted...the best book on fear I've ever read."Therese Borchard, PyschCentral
Clark (Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce andCulture, 2007) examines how people react under pressure.
The author sets the stage with a nail-biting account of a potentially cataclysmic event during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when a highly stressed Soviet submarine commander almost made the fatal mistake of shooting off a nuclear-armed torpedo. Even though he was afflicted with debilitating anxiety attacks, the author was still surprised to learn that anxiety disorders now top the list of mental disorders in the United States, exceeding depression. While anti-anxiety medications help ameliorate symptoms, Clark wanted to get to the root of the problem. His search for answers as to why many of us "fret about things that are, for lack of a better word,bullshit," yet others—including police officers, pilots and trauma surgeons—manage to successfully circumvent the brain's flight-fight-or-freeze response to perceived threats takes him on a fascinating quest for understanding. He first looks at neurological studies of the brain, which provide insight into how it can be trained to distinguish between real and apparent threats and deal with crisis situations by repeatedly evoking fear and working through it. Clark interviews a wide variety of people, including athletes who inexplicably choke in tight situations and others who appear at the top of their game when the pressure is most intense. The author also discusses World War II, when Londoners calmly weathered nightly German bombing raids—after a while they became predictable and therefore less frightening—while soldiers crumbled under sporadic artillery fire. During the writing of this book, Clark learned to face his own fears and function effectively. He recognized that feeling fear and keeping cool in stressful situations are not incompatible but often complementary.
A compassionate psychological page-turner.
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NervePoise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool
By Clark, Taylor
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Clark, Taylor
All right reserved.
The Nervous Trinity
Your Second Brain: Exploring the New Science of Fear
The first thing Scott Raderstorf remembers about the most terrifying day of his life was the faint tremor of his bed beneath him, a vibration so slight that he assumed it was a rat gnawing at his bedpost. In the groggy early-morning light, this seemed the most logical explanation; Raderstorf and his still dozing family were lodging for the week in an open-air thatched bungalow on a crescent of unspoiled Thai beach, and occasional rodent incursions were to be expected. When he glanced at the bedside table, though, Raderstorf noticed a flutter in his glass of water as well—so unless this was a particularly brawny rat, the trembling was coming from elsewhere. Maybe someone was out dynamite fishing, he reflected. Raderstorf blearily considered arising for a dawn-cracking kayak trip but thought better of it and drifted back to sleep. After all, he was on vacation.
More specifically, the Raderstorfs were on vacation from their vacation. At age forty-two, Scott Raderstorf was living out a dream that he and his wife, Joellen, had schemed over for years: they were taking their three young sons on a round-the-world adventure. Having recently sold off a software company, the couple seized on their newfound freedom and charted a journey that would carry them away from their Boulder, Colorado, home for six months—Dubai, Melbourne, Istanbul, Beijing, Johannesburg, and more. They set off in November 2004 with a single backpack each, blitzing first through Japan, then China, all of it more or less improvised. “The only thing we had were the plane tickets,” explained Raderstorf. “Other than that, we just showed up and figured it out.” The one pre-planned reservation that the Raderstorfs allowed themselves was for a Christmas sojourn at the Golden Buddha Beach Resort on pristine Koh Phra Thong island, three hundred miles southwest of Bangkok. Arriving at the retreat via longboat amid an idyllic Christmas Eve sunset, the family felt they had reached heaven itself.
By the time the Raderstorf clan ventured out for breakfast on their third day at the Golden Buddha, Scott had forgotten all about the morning’s mysterious rumblings. It was another flawless day in paradise, and after making himself a press pot of coffee, Scott took his laptop to the Internet shack while the two youngest, Quin and Max, headed for the beach to make castles in the fluffy beige sand. On a call to the friends who had told them about the resort, the trouble began. “I called to say ‘Merry Christmas and thanks for the recommendation,’ ” Raderstorf told me. “I’d literally just gotten that much out when I heard this huge boom down on the beach, like a jet plane had crash-landed. So I ran out, and my wife ran up from the breakfast area, and this big, broad beach was totally wet.” The sea had been as placid as bathwater before, yet a massive wave had suddenly flooded forty feet up the beach and swiftly drained away. The quaking of a few hours before flashed forebodingly through Scott’s mind. In the water, Scott saw people frantically swimming toward the shore as a powerful current swept them out to sea. And where Quin and Max’s sandcastle had been a moment before there was now only a waterlogged mess.
This was Scott Raderstorf’s warm-up fright of the day. With their oldest, Ben, in tow, Scott and Joellen tore down the beach, yelling their sons’ names. The boys weren’t there. The family’s bungalow was empty. Their parental alarm amplifying, Scott and Joellen were scanning the sea with darting eyes when the boys appeared in the entrance of the cottage two doors down, guilty looks on their faces. By an incredible coincidence, the Raderstorfs had run into two old friends at the Golden Buddha, Roger Hodgson and Carrie Sengelman, and their kids’ irresistible Game Boy—which Quin and Max had been sternly forbidden to play—likely saved the Raderstorf children’s lives.
It was while the two families were exchanging relieved hugs that Carrie noticed something peculiar: the ocean was disappearing. The waterline slid farther away by the second, first a hundred yards distant, then two hundred, leaving schools of fish flopping on a vast, smooth expanse of sand. The sight mesmerized Scott and Carrie—but not Joellen, who immediately started shepherding the kids away from the beach. With the water now a quarter mile away, Roger hurried into his family’s bungalow to secure his laptop, but Scott wandered forward to watch the entrancing spectacle. Like several others on the beach, he saw little to be concerned about. “It didn’t look menacing,” he recalled. “It was just novel. I knew the water would come back, but I thought at worst the resort might get a little swamped.”
When the wave of returning water first loomed on the horizon, it appeared small and almost tranquil, a burbling, seemingly harmless white tide. As the seconds ticked by, however, the water grew strangely loud, sending out a rumble that struck Raderstorf as far too deep for such a tiny wave—and anyway, shouldn’t it have arrived by now? The truth didn’t click in his mind until he saw the wave pass a large rock at sea, and the water that had once appeared so sedate enveloped it violently and completely. In an instant, his mind recomputed the scale of what he was looking at: it wasn’t a sluggish little wash of water; it was a thirty-foot-tall mountain of surf moving with crushing speed. The vibration he had felt that morning wasn’t a rat; it was the radiating tremor of the second-largest earthquake ever recorded, issuing from deep beneath the Indian Ocean. And the wave it triggered wasn’t a wave at all. It was a tsunami—and he was standing directly in its path.
Right then, Raderstorf’s brain grasped that he was probably about to die. A biochemical switch flipped. Within milliseconds, his body flooded with the strongest feeling of fear he had ever experienced, a physiological torrent that transformed him at once into a primal creature with a single overpowering urge: survive.
And… let’s freeze the story right here.
We’ll return to Raderstorf’s bout with the Boxing Day tsunami in a moment, but first, let’s ask a question: What in the world just happened to him? How, literally in the blink of an eye, did he swing from a state of mesmerized awe to one of abject terror, with adrenaline coursing through his every limb? What, in other words, is this fear he felt, and how does it work? We generally don’t think in such an analytical way about our emotions, as nebulous and unpredictable as they often seem to us, but in Scott Raderstorf’s case it’s no idle question. Without a swift and powerful fear response, flipped at just the right moment and precision-engineered to produce the exact sequence of physiological events that soon followed, he would have died that day. Raderstorf’s case may be extreme, but his story also offers us the clearest possible illustration of why our fear is a very good thing.
In this chapter, we will explore the split second when fear bursts into being within our bodies and brains, a surprisingly rich and complex sliver of time that neuroscientists have only recently demystified. Thirty years ago, the scientific establishment believed emotions to be too troublesome to study with any rigor, yet thanks to technological advances and a few innovative minds, we now understand how fear works, where it lives in the brain, and why it behaves in such puzzling ways. What, for example, would make an arachnophobic terrified of a toy tarantula, even though it posed no threat to his safety? Why doesn’t reason make fear immediately dissipate? How is it that we can react to danger before we’ve actually figured out what’s going on? It all happens because our fear mechanism has a mind of its own—in fact, it is a mind of its own. Before we can comprehend the secret ingredients of clutch, cool, and grace under fire, we first need to understand fear itself.
The Three Fs
Our systematic knowledge about the circuitry of fear might be brand-new, but long before neuroscience ever beamed a spotlight on the emotion’s inner workings, we’d already pieced together a tidy explanation for its purpose in human life. Of course, philosophers have pondered the nature of fright and terror since the days of Plato; Spartan warriors even built temples in honor of fear. Our first truly useful insights about the function of fear, however, trace back to the dawn of evolutionary thought.
Working from the assumption that all of our emotions must have arisen to fulfill some survival-ensuring purpose, Charles Darwin (among others) loved to muse about why certain situations make us feel the way we do. In his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin wrote of one particularly revealing experiment he attempted at the Zoological Gardens in London. Pressing his face up close to the thick glass wall of a puff adder cage, Darwin set his concentration toward one goal: if the venomous (and highly annoyed) snake tried to strike, he would not allow himself to flinch. Time after time, no matter how strong his determination, he got the same result. “As soon as the blow was struck,” he wrote, “my resolution went for nothing, and I jumped a yard or two backwards with astonishing rapidity.” Darwin marveled at the sheer strength of his fear response, against which his “will and reason were powerless.” Clearly, he was dealing with a potent, deeply ingrained emotional reaction—maybe the most important one of them all.
To better demonstrate the precise evolutionary function of fear, let’s travel back in time, oh, a million years or so to pay a visit to one of our Stone Age ancestors. We’ll call him Thag. Feeling pent up in his damp and poorly furnished cave one day, Thag decides to take a restorative stroll through a nearby glade. Mere minutes into his walk, though, an unforeseen danger streaks through the underbrush: a mastodon charging straight for him, angry puffs of steam billowing from its trunk. In this dire predicament, with not even a spear at his disposal, Thag can do two things—think or act. Suppose Thag chooses Option A and tries to reason his way out of the situation. His thinking might look something like this: Ah yes, the mighty mastodon. Majestic creature. He appears agitated with me. Now, then: how to survive? How… to… sur— And right about here, Thag would be crushed underfoot. Put simply, thinking in this situation is maladaptive; it wastes precious time, stands in the way of useful action, and puts the Thag bloodline in jeopardy. To maximize his chances of staying alive, Thag needs to have some kind of self-activating defense system in place that can instantly supercharge his body and launch it into a protective action like sprinting away—preferably before he even has an opportunity to ponder other options. He needs fear.
Fear is nature’s little way of telling us the following: Sorry, but you’re not to be trusted with your own survival. It’s a blunt physiological tool designed to automatically supersede every other bodily function and ensure our continued existence right now. “Fear evolved as a protective mechanism focused on antipredator behavior, and it’s one of the most powerful forms of selection pressure,” explained Michael Fanselow, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is one of the nation’s foremost experts on the science of fear. “So here’s the example I typically give to illustrate that. We’ve all missed a mating opportunity, but we’ll have another one. If we miss a feeding opportunity, with someone like me that’s probably a good thing—it’s not going to hurt us. But if we miss an opportunity to defend ourselves, that’s it. And we don’t reproduce anymore.” Because of this premium on snap-quick, decisive action, evolution programmed our fear system to react first and ask questions later. “You want to be conservative here, right?” Fanselow continued. “If something has the potential to do you harm, you want to rapidly and completely react to it.”
In 1915, the Harvard University physiologist Walter Cannon coined a catchy term that we still use to describe this automatic fear system: the fight-or-flight response. Cannon’s fundamental insight was that all animals, from brainy humans down to tiny field mice, meet a sudden threat with the same basic biological reaction—a state of impulsive nervous excitement that prepares them either to scamper away at warp speed or to battle tooth and claw. Adrenaline surges through the body, charging the muscles with energy for emergency action. Surface-level blood vessels constrict and leave the skin pale and slightly numb, providing a temporary layer of armor that is less likely to bleed. The pupils dilate for heightened vision. Nonessential processes like digestion cease—and worse, the body sometimes decides to jettison all extra weight, which accounts for the unfortunate sudden loss of bowel and bladder control that can strike when we’re frightened. Breathing and heart rate both speed up, funneling more oxygen into the muscles. In short, you’re ready to rock and/or roll. The brain decides whether to fight or flee subconsciously and instantaneously, and threatened animals often swing back and forth between the two. Confronted by a hostile fox, a squirrel might first sprint away in terror, then lash out in a reckless last-ditch attack after it’s been cornered.
As any fear researcher could tell you, however, Cannon missed one important detail. There are really three Fs to the fear response: fight, flight, or freeze. Imagine that you’re walking alone down a dark street, and you’re startled by a suspicious rustling off in the bushes. What’s the first thing you’ll do? Without thinking, you will stop dead in your tracks, your senses suddenly razor sharp. Your eyes will fly wide open to take in as much visual information as possible, and you’ll quickly draw in and hold your breath, rendering yourself completely silent. Your mouth will drop open, in case you need to scream for help. In a flash, you’ve become an alarmed-looking human statue.
Based on what we’ve discussed so far, this freezing response probably seems somewhat wrongheaded; wouldn’t it be better to get a head start and dash away from the potential threat immediately? Actually, no. In the wild, many predators react to movement, and if you abruptly go rigid there’s always a chance that the tiger you just spotted won’t notice you. Think of freezing as a state of defensive preparation. The body gets the same jolt of adrenaline that readies it for fighting or fleeing, but the brain has calculated that at least for the moment, your best odds of survival come with no action at all. Sometimes this gamble backfires, the most obvious example being deer that freeze in the headlights of an oncoming Mack truck, their brains programmed to hope this weird, shiny predator will fail to see them. We often dismiss the petrified deer’s reaction as primitive or brainless, and then, of course, we do the very same thing when prodded to speak before an audience—most likely one that contains zero predators.
In an especially menacing situation, some animals stretch the freezing response even further and instinctively play dead, on the theory that predators have an innate revulsion to eating things that are already deceased (as an evolutionary safeguard against food poisoning). The North American hognose snake, for instance, takes the play-dead reaction to such comical heights that it resembles a standup comedy routine more than a survival behavior. If you startle a hognose as it winds through the grass, it will hiss and lash out just like any other snake—at first. This is mostly for show; the snake’s bite packs no venom. So, when its tough-guy act fails to intimidate, the hognose opts for Plan B. Like a bad actor in a community theater production of Hamlet, the snake suddenly lurches as if struck by a mortal blow. Apparently afflicted with incredible pain, it writhes and twists dramatically before finally flopping on its back, its tongue hanging out the side of its gaping mouth: dead, from some invisible poison. It emits a rancid musk to complete the ruse, and sometimes drops of blood will even appear in its mouth. Turn it right side up, and the snake will instantly flip itself over again, as if to say, “No, seriously—I’m totally dead.”
Terrified humans feign death too, and not always by choice. Biologists call this kind of response tonic immobility, and we resort to it only when we’re literally in the jaws of a predator. The celebrated explorer David Livingstone learned about this firsthand in 1844, when he attempted to help some African villagers fend off a lion and promptly found himself between the creature’s teeth, being shaken “as a terrier does a rat.” Almost immediately, Livingstone felt himself go limp and numb, later reporting that he remained fully aware through the entire experience; the ordeal, he wrote, seemed to occur through “a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror.” The lion soon dropped him to pursue more active prey, and thus Livingstone’s involuntary stupor may well have saved him. Likewise, many survivors of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre—in which an unhinged gunman shot his way through several classrooms, killing thirty-two trapped students and professors before turning his gun on himself—recalled afterward that they fell to the floor and entered a catatonic trance when the assailant opened fire in their classroom, even though they hadn’t been hit themselves. This too was adaptive, but it’s also rare. Generally, freezing in humans is just a prelude to the two major survival actions of fighting or fleeing.
For Scott Raderstorf, caught on an exposed patch of sand as the tidal wave thundered in, the obvious choice was flight—and that’s what he did, faster than he ever had in his life. Mere milliseconds after his brain comprehended the shocking scope of the oncoming torrent, Raderstorf’s fear system shot him into action. Without thinking, he pivoted around and entered a dead sprint. “RUN!” he bellowed to Carrie, the family friend who also remained on the beach. “I remember the total panic,” he told me of this moment. “I was just supercharged with adrenaline, more hopped up than I’d ever felt before.” What he saw as he turned to run only deepened his terror: the nearest sturdy structure stood a hundred yards away, across a stretch of open beach. Scott spotted Joellen and the kids climbing a staircase to the top of the house—one of the few on the island with a brick foundation. He figured he had maybe fifteen seconds to get there before the wave crashed over the resort.
The loose sand made running nearly impossible, but Raderstorf’s legs were set to turbo. As Scott flew over the beach, he heard Carrie scream “HELP!” behind him—yet when he looked over his shoulder, he saw only a rumbling white wall of seawater. An instant after he passed the first row of thatched cottages, they exploded under the wave’s force. “The first houses got hit by the front of the wave, and you could hear this huge boom as it blew these structures apart, turning them into toothpicks,” Raderstorf recalled. Palm trees snapped in half all around him. By the time he reached the house, he could feel the spray from the tsunami on his back, its roar shaking his body. Raderstorf bounded up the steps just as the water enveloped the house. The deck to which he and his family now clung stood twelve feet above the ground, yet the water lapped up within a foot of the top. Entire buildings floated by them. After two minutes spent frantically searching for Carrie and her husband, Roger, they spied the couple paddling through the water—Roger one pinky finger poorer, but each of them safe. Amazingly, both families escaped serious injury.
Many died that day, yet Scott Raderstorf survived because his fear system worked to its absolute peak potential: within milliseconds of recognizing the threat, it threw his muscles into hyperdrive, commandeered his decision-making, and launched him into action. Had he paused even for a split second to think, had fear not instantly primed his body for a speedy escape, the tsunami would have overtaken him before he could reach safety. No wonder the Spartans paid such deep homage to fear; as Raderstorf could tell you, in the moments that truly matter, fear can become your closest ally.
For a very long time, we didn’t know much about how this fight, flight, or freeze response worked in the brain—we just knew it did. The three Fs are only the outward manifestations of a more complex system deep within, and although they tell us a lot about why fear exists, they reveal little about the strange emotional machinery that leaves some poised and others panicked in the face of danger. According to the New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, the physical sensations we associate with fear—pounding heart, trembling hands, quickened breath—are no more than “red herrings, detours, in the scientific study of emotions.” To learn anything useful about fear, LeDoux continues, “what we need to elucidate is not so much the conscious state of fear or the accompanying responses, but the system that detects the danger in the first place.” He should know. Through their innovative research, LeDoux and his talented colleagues in the “brain mafia” have revolutionized our understanding of fear by tracking down its secret lair in the brain: a tiny hub of cells called the amygdala. It’s the hidden neural command center that explains all of fear’s mysteries. It’s also kind of a pain in the neck.
Prepare to meet your second brain.
Taking the Low Road
As a kid growing up in the Cajun country of Louisiana, Joseph LeDoux spent a lot of time contemplating meat. He had little choice: his father, Boo, was a butcher in the small bayou town of Eunice, and young Joe logged many hours at the family meat market, his developing brain exposed to a bounty of, well… brains. Throughout LeDoux’s childhood, one of his after-school duties was to remove slaughterhouse bullets from the brains of the newly arriving shipments of cattle. Far from making him gag, the job filled him with questions about how the brain—which, as LeDoux likes to point out, is just “intricately wired meat”—produces thoughts, perceptions, and especially emotions. This curiosity eventually propelled him up through the echelons of neuroscience, first at Louisiana State University and later at SUNY Stony Brook, where he and the eminent neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga did pioneering research into split-brain cases—patients whose left and right hemispheres cannot communicate with each other. LeDoux hoped he could investigate the genesis of emotions in human subjects as well, but that path came with a frustrating hitch: since you couldn’t exactly tinker with someone’s brain (lest you should accidentally break it), you had to wait around for someone to suffer some exciting new form of brain damage and then rush off to study him. LeDoux was too impatient for that. He needed another way.
The answer was rats—many, many rats. In the early 1980s, soon after he accepted an assistant professorship in Cornell University’s neurology department, LeDoux came across an intriguing new research method that Michael Fanselow was using to create a strong yet easily controlled emotional reaction in lab rats. It was called fear conditioning, and the protocol couldn’t have been simpler. Step one: put a rat in a box. Step two: play a tone, like a loud beep. Step three: immediately after the tone, deliver an electric shock to the rat’s feet through the floor of the cage. And voilà—in the same way that Pavlov conditioned his dogs to salivate at the sound of a dinner bell, the rats would now freeze in fear when you next played the tone, expecting another zap. “This method turned out to be pretty convenient, because you had a discrete stimulus, the tone, that you could use to elicit a fixed emotional response, which was the freezing behavior,” LeDoux told me. “These responses were very, very consistent and reliable, so it was a good way to study how the brain processed emotional stimuli.” Now able to summon fear at will, with any luck LeDoux could hunt down its source within the brain.
There was just one problem: many of his colleagues thought such a task was impossible. When LeDoux sent out his first grant application to research fear in rats, he got rejected; the psychological establishment believed emotions were too nebulous to study. The thinking went something like this. By the 1970s and early ’80s, technological innovations like CAT scanning began offering cognitive scientists firm proof that the human mind is an information-processing device much like a computer. The majority of this processing happens unconsciously, but we do consciously experience two kinds of mental activity: thoughts and emotions. Brain researchers had long known that cognition—the kind of rational, deliberative thinking that we use for analyzing problems and formulating plans—takes place in a large area in the front of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. Yet while cognition appeared cut-and-dried to brain researchers, emotions seemed baffling. Unlike rational thought, feelings were highly subjective and came in an infinite number of shades and textures. How could one possibly quantify feelings like hope, shame, and awe, or analyze the differences between, say, envy and greed? As LeDoux is quick to point out, we casually toss around dozens of terms—for example, anxiety, terror, and apprehension—to stand in for the umbrella concept of fear, but each word actually means something subtly different to us. It’s hardly astonishing, then, that so many neuroscientists shied from studying emotions: they seemed like a never-ending labyrinth.
The vagueness of these emotional signifiers can be so confusing, in fact, that it’s worth taking a moment to clearly define the three main terms we’ll be using throughout this book: fear, anxiety, and stress. These three probably seem virtually identical, but to psychologists and neuroscientists they’re quite distinct. Fear is the physical feeling you get when there’s something dangerous in front of you right now, and its simple job is to get you to safety. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a cognitive phenomenon, and its purpose is to protect you from potential dangers that might pop up in the future; it’s the free-floating sense of dread that often goes hand in hand with worry and unwarranted pessimism. Stress is perhaps the toughest term to pin down, but broadly speaking, it describes how our bodies respond to excessive demands: we feel stress when a situation grows emotionally difficult, when we have to work frantically to meet a deadline, when we endure too much pain, and so on. If the mental or physical demands of our lives overwhelm us, a stress reaction is the result. To put this all into context, imagine you’re on a long train trip and you spot a man in your compartment who looks suspiciously like a wanted killer. If this man brandishes a gleaming knife at you, you will feel fear; if he does nothing but you find yourself fretting endlessly about what might happen, you will feel anxiety; and if he just turns out to be some jerk who wants to spend the next three hours telling you the entire plot of Battlestar Galactica, you will feel stress. Of course, fear, anxiety, and stress often overlap—fear can make you stressed, stress can make you more anxious—but we’ll mostly talk about them as separate entities.
Joe LeDoux’s target was pure, unfiltered fear, and he adamantly believed that the emotion’s straightforward physiological profile meant he could employ the information-processing model of the brain to study it too—not just cognition. “My contribution at the beginning of this was to say that we can study the way the brain processes an emotional stimulus and produces an emotional response without making any assumption about how the animal experiences it consciously,” LeDoux explained. With his tone-fearing conditioned rats, he could bring out the same fear reaction every time, and he never had to ask the rats to describe their subjective experience of the emotion. If some dedicated area of their rodent brains was processing the sound and triggering fear, he knew he could unearth it.
LeDoux pulled off this cranial Easter egg hunt through the process of elimination—which, unfortunately for his rats, literally entailed surgically eliminating different brain areas to see if the rats could still feel fear after they were gone. Just as information traveling through telephone lines will fail to reach its destination if a wire gets snipped, LeDoux assumed the sound of the tone would fail to elicit an emotional reaction if he disabled a crucial link in the fear circuit. Thus, he started with the tone’s entry point, the rats’ ears, and worked his way up the fear chain.
Almost immediately, he hit a paradox. When he destroyed a rat’s auditory thalamus—the lower brain region that relays sound information from the ear to the higher-up auditory cortex—the rats no longer displayed any fear when he played the tone. This was no surprise: they were now functionally deaf. But when LeDoux lesioned the auditory cortex itself while leaving the thalamus intact, the rats still displayed fear even though they couldn’t consciously hear the tone. This was somewhat mind-blowing. Without an intact auditory cortex you can’t “hear” anything, since the cortex transforms external audio information into the conscious experience of sound, so how could the rats possibly freeze at a sound they didn’t even know existed? If the rats were growing terrified at a noise they never consciously experienced, this meant that the auditory information from the ear must have split in the thalamus and traveled elsewhere in the brain—to some mysterious part of their subconscious mind that could still hear the tone. Amazingly, the fear system could bypass conscious thought entirely.
This new revelation presented a predicament: if the auditory information was branching off, it could be traveling anywhere in the brain. So to narrow down the suspects, LeDoux turned to one of neuroscience’s James Bond–style tricks. Into each rat’s auditory thalamus he injected a special tracer chemical that piggybacks on molecules that pass through the neurons in the region, leaving behind a map of its outbound connections. All LeDoux needed to do now was scare the rat, remove its brain, and then put it under a microscope capable of displaying dark field optics, which popped the chemical’s path out into stark, luminous relief. In his 1996 book The Emotional Brain, LeDoux offers a description of this neural spectacle: “Bright orange particles formed streams and speckles against a dark blue-gray background. It was like looking into a strange world of inner space.” The auditory thalamus, it turned out, sent neural projections into four brain regions, three of which had no effect on fear when LeDoux disabled them in his rodents. But when he dismantled the fourth region, his rats abruptly and completely lost the ability to become afraid. That region was the amygdala.
Now, it should be quite clear by this point that as one of the nation’s top neuroscientists and an innovator in the study of emotion, Joe LeDoux is nothing if not a dignified emissary of science. Talk to him for just a moment, and your impression is of a man whose scorching gaze could reduce uncooperative graduate students to smoldering piles of ash. It comes as something of a shock, then, to learn that LeDoux’s discovery about the amygdala’s role in producing fear was so stirring to the hidden recesses of his soul that it has moved him to song—publicly, and often. With three of his NYU neuroscience colleagues, LeDoux formed a band with the goal of translating the miracles of brain research into rock and roll (or, as they’ve relabeled it, “heavy mental”). They call themselves the Amygdaloids, and the centerpiece of their oeuvre, an ode to the amygdala called “All in a Nut,” may well be the only song ever penned about the brain’s basal ganglia. “Why, why, why do we feel so afraid?” LeDoux croons. “Don’t have to look very far / Don’t get stuck in a rut / Don’t go looking too hard / It’s all in a nut… in your brain.”
Well, technically speaking, it’s all in two nuts: the left and right hemispheres both carry their own almond-shaped amygdalae, each of them situated about an inch and a half straight in from the temples. (The amygdala gets its name from the Greek word for “almond”—, or amygdalo—so describing it as “almond-shaped” is actually kind of redundant.) Taken together, these two neural clusters form the brain’s hidden fear headquarters. The amygdala works just like a tiny security system lodged in our heads, and it’s wired to help us detect and respond to danger as quickly as our mental hardware will allow—almost like an independent mind within the mind. Every second of every day, no matter if you’re awake or asleep, your amygdala monitors all of the sensory information around you through its own special circuit from the senses, constantly searching for potential threats. Because the amygdala receives its raw data stream independently of the cortex, it scans things you don’t consciously register, like background noises and objects in peripheral vision. It’s kind of like having a batty Montana survivalist permanently camped out in your brain: the amygdala is vigilant, it’s paranoid, and it has an itchy trigger finger. The instant that it detects a possible danger, it hits the physiological alarm switch, setting off a fight, flight, or freeze reaction within milliseconds.
The amygdala does its job so quickly, in fact, that it can fire up a fear reaction well before the conscious part of the brain registers that a potential threat is afoot—and thus, we really do react emotionally before we even have a clue what’s going on. This phenomenon is best illustrated with another example. Suppose you’re reclining in a comfortable chair in your living room, utterly absorbed in a gripping nonfiction book on, say, fear. You’re so enthralled by the book’s masterly prose that when a sudden draft blows a nearby door shut with a massive SLAM!, you leap out of the chair in terror. “Well, that was ironic,” you think to yourself, your body flooding with relief, as you realize it was only the wind—nothing to worry about. For most of us, abrupt shocks like this are the closest we get to the fright Thag felt when he spotted the stampeding mastodon. But they’re also puzzling. Why do we get spooked over something harmless? Shouldn’t we be able to tell that it poses no threat?
Here’s why things don’t work that way. Recall that in the brains of LeDoux’s rats, the auditory signal of the fearsome tone forked off in two directions, with one route blazing straight to the amygdala and another climbing up to the higher cognitive areas. LeDoux calls the first path the “low road”: it’s a lightning-fast superhighway to the fear center, but the information it transmits is raw and low in detail. The amygdala’s job is to react to this brute data with an ultracautious, self-preserving response; consequently, when the door slams, the amygdala receives a basic report of a suspicious loud noise and makes you jump up, ready to fight or flee. The whole process takes just twelve milliseconds. Meanwhile, as the amygdala triggers a quick fear reaction based on the rough low road data, the same sensory information is wending its way through the “high road” to the cortex. This route gives us a much clearer picture of the situation, but the complex cortical networks run more slowly—they take thirty to forty milliseconds to do their processing, three times as long as the low road. Only now, after you’ve already responded to the threat, can the cortex send out the all clear, alerting the amygdala to the false alarm and returning it to a state of paranoid watchfulness.
Why, we might ask, is the high road so much slower than the low road? LeDoux explains the answer in terms of transit. “Let’s say you’re in the West Village of Manhattan and you want to get to the United Nations building,” he told me. “You could go up to Forty-second Street and go across, and you’d pretty much be there. Or you could go up to Central Park and wander around, then go back down to Forty-second and across, and you’d also be there. Going the shorter route gets you there faster, but taking the longer route lets you gather more information along the way.” The high road, then, is the mental equivalent of taking the scenic route, and because of the way the brain is designed, the low road will always be quicker. This is why Darwin couldn’t stop himself from jumping back when the puff adder struck: the low road to his amygdala sparked a physiological reaction to the threat before the high road to his conscious brain even registered that the threat existed. Put another way, our fears are faster than our thoughts. We can’t help this. No matter how hard you try to suppress it, you will always jump at the crash of the door and the snap of the snake.
Sometimes this high/low road system works to our advantage, and sometimes not. When you step off the sidewalk and the amygdala quickly spots an unfriendly bus speeding toward you from the side, the reflexive backwards leap it triggers will keep you alive. If a surprise party for your birthday sends you into catatonic shock, on the other hand, not so much. We might wish our higher cognitive machinery could keep up with the amygdala, but evolution, in its savage wisdom, knows that it’s better to go through a thousand false alarms than to risk failing to react to a real danger just once. Because the low road has protected our ancestors so well for thousands of years, the mental technology of fear hasn’t progressed much since Thag’s time. As LeDoux points out, “In some ways we are emotional lizards.”
LeDoux’s breakthrough in tracing our feelings of fear back to their neurological source has revolutionized our understanding of the emotion, and his findings have been borne out in dozens of studies since, in human and animal subjects alike. When human patients have their amygdalae electrically stimulated during brain surgery, for instance, they become suffused with an intense feeling of anxious foreboding. And those unfortunate souls who suffer irreparable amygdala damage don’t merely lose the ability to feel fear; they no longer even recognize the emotion. Ask them to describe a picture of a terrified face, and they can’t tell you what feeling the person might be experiencing. Animals, too, display some truly peculiar behaviors without a fully functioning amygdala. The Emory University neuroscientist Michael Davis has conducted experiments on rats in which he disabled a rodent’s amygdala and then placed it in a cage with its sworn nemesis: a house cat, dozing under the influence of a sedative. With their fear systems off-line, the usually wary rats transformed into rodent daredevils, scampering on top of the slumbering cat and nipping at its ears. Take away our ability to fear, and we become different beings entirely.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of understanding the amygdala, our skittish second brain, if we want to grasp fear’s true nature. These neural clusters explain mysteries of fear that have vexed humankind for eons. For one, we now know why fear so often fails to respond to reason—that is, why you can spend hours telling someone who dreads flying about the airline industry’s impressive safety measures, or about how it’s far more dangerous to drive a car than travel by plane, yet their fear won’t budge. The amygdala, brain researchers have found, shoots out a profusion of neural connections to the cortex, allowing it to supersede the conscious mind and immediately remove you from the path of that hurtling bus. But the neural conduits going in the other direction, from the cortex to the amygdala, are far fewer in number; in other words, our brains are actually designed to thwart our efforts to consciously override the fear response. (Evolution, you remember, has no faith in us.) It’s not that the cortex grows completely helpless when fear arises, mind you—indeed, the amygdala and the cortex usually have a healthy reciprocal relationship, with each side’s advantages able to balance out the other’s flaws. The problem is simply that the amygdala can make it tougher for the thinking mind to work its magic.
Another riddle that the amygdala has solved is the question of why we become alarmed at mere representations of fearsome stimuli. If you plop a toy spider on the table in front of an arachnophobic, for instance, she’ll scream out in horror, even if it’s an obvious fake. The knowledge that the toy isn’t dangerous won’t dim her fear at all; she’ll writhe in terror until it’s gone. Why? Because the quick and blurry low road to her amygdala is providing a rough sketch of something alarmingly spiderlike—and since the amygdala’s credo is “freak out first, ask questions later,” this is all it needs to trigger fear.
For many of us, from those who deal with pesky little worries and phobias to those who struggle mightily with fear every day, the implication of this recent surge of amygdala research should come as nothing less than a revelation: what we think and what we feel really do live in different parts of the brain. We often chastise ourselves for our “irrational” fears, as though we’re failing some kind of mental logic test whenever we become afraid against our will, but reason has nothing to do with it; all fear is technically irrational. No one is ever “crazy” for feeling afraid, no matter how strange the source of the fear, be it spiders or clowns or even antique Shaker rocking chairs. Being anxious is never “your fault”; the worst thing we could say is that your subconscious fear system might be firing inappropriately, like a touchy car alarm that starts blaring when someone merely taps the fender. Learning to better handle the amygdala’s ins and outs can be tricky, but as we’ll see, it’s an eminently workable problem.
Before we can delve into how to manage our assorted fears, however, we need to fill in one last piece of the amygdaloid puzzle. We now have a good grasp of how the fear response works, yet we also know that not all brains are created equal. Though we all fear some things universally—imminent tsunamis, ferocious bears, zombie hordes—we each harbor individualized fears as well. One person’s amygdala calls in the cavalry at the sight of a toy spider while another person’s fear system sees no danger whatsoever. Certainly, both people know on a conscious level that the plush arachnid is harmless, but their amygdalae have opposite reactions. So what causes these personalized fears? I’ve said already that the amygdala is a mind of its own, and I wasn’t exaggerating: it even forms its own opinions about what you should fear. And frustratingly enough for us, those opinions are very tough to change.
Can’t Get You out of My Head
Almost exactly one hundred years ago, a Swiss neurologist named Édouard Claparède performed a peculiar experiment that quickly became one of the best-known riddles in psychology. One of Claparède’s patients, a forty-seven-year-old woman, suffered from a rare and extraordinary form of brain damage that left her reasoning powers and pre-injury memories intact but completely disabled her ability to form new memories. It was like a reverse case of amnesia: she recalled everything about the past but nothing about the present. The patient could carry on a conversation and hold on to short-term memory for perhaps ten minutes, yet beyond that point all information disappeared into some neural void, never to return. Every day, Claparède met with this woman to check on her condition, and every day, he had to introduce himself to her anew. If he left the room for twenty minutes and came back, she looked at him as though they’d never met.
For one of these meetings, Claparède decided to vary the routine with a little test. Before entering the room, he hid a pin in his palm, its edge pricking out. As soon as the woman shook his hand, she recoiled in pain and shock—but hey, she wasn’t going to remember it, so no harm done, right? When Claparède came in the following day and stuck out his pinless hand for her to shake, however, the woman now refused to touch it. She couldn’t explain her reluctance, nor did she have any memory of the day before, yet she claimed the prospect of shaking his hand filled her with dread. No one could fathom it: if she was unable to form new memories, how could she know Claparède’s handshake might be hazardous? The psychologists of the era posited that some hidden “implicit” memory system must be at play here, but it would be many years before neuroscience could offer a firm answer to this fear-memory puzzle.
Our fear system relies heavily on learning and memory to help it do its job, after all. In order to prevent us from seeing everything around us as a life-threatening hazard—“Oh no, a kitten! Good God, there’s a banana!”—the amygdala needs a quick and reliable way to tell the difference between harmless things and dangerous things. So in the same way that your computer’s antivirus program compares each file on your hard drive with its data bank of malicious software, your amygdala scans all incoming stimuli against a memory bank of threats. If it gets a close enough match (say, a scurrying black critter), it fires up a fear reaction (“Spider alert!”). Memory, then, is an essential ingredient in fear. When we say that Claparède’s patient developed a fear of shaking his hand after her first prickly encounter, what we mean is that her brain learned a new entry for its threat database: perhaps “outstretched palms of smart-ass doctors.” The same is true of LeDoux’s fear-conditioned lab rats. Before his experiment, the rats were indifferent to the digital tone, but after just a single tone-shock pairing they instantly learned that tones meant unpleasant jolts and filed the information away for future use. Because Claparède’s memory-impaired patient was still able to form a new fear, the information about the pinprick clearly couldn’t have gone to her brain’s all-purpose memory center. This neural structure, the sea-horse-shaped hippocampus, is the region that’s responsible for helping you remember important facts like the date of your wedding anniversary, your online banking password, and where you parked your car.
Oh, wait a minute—you can’t remember those things, can you? In fact, you forget them constantly; you’re probably wandering aimlessly around a parking garage as you read this. This is why fear memories don’t reside in the hippocampus, the brain’s home for most long-term memories. Our factual, or “explicit,” memories have a troubling tendency to weaken over time (really: try to recall what you had for lunch last Tuesday), but unless we want to get eaten, we can’t afford to have the memory of a threat to our safety fade. If you’re a rat, for example, you never, ever want to forget that a house cat is a dire threat; it should be engraved forever in your little brain. To keep us safest, fear memories have to be deep-seated and inflexible, and they have to be “implicit”—that is, they have to work beyond our awareness. (Implicit memory lets us perform memorized actions without conscious effort, like touch-typing or driving a car.) So there could be no more logical or convenient place to store these unique, etched-in-stone emotional memories than in the seat of fright itself: the amygdala. Within those two little clusters lie the keys to our deepest, darkest fear memories, from humankind’s most ancient terrors to the new connections we make all the time.
Let’s start with the primal fears. When we’re born, the amygdala doesn’t start off as a blank slate, merely awaiting instruction on which things to fear. Mother Nature was kind enough to pre-program our brains with innate aversions to things humans generally wanted to avoid over the ages: snakes, spiders, heights, darkness, sudden loud noises that might indicate an attacker, closed-in spaces. Each of us expresses these fears in different proportions, but they never have to be learned from experience. At birth, healthy infants immediately show what’s called the Moro reflex: if you let a baby’s head suddenly fall backwards, the infant will display its inborn fear of falling, flashing a startled look and splaying its arms out sideways as if to catch itself. Similarly, even on islands that have no snake species slithering about—and thus where the indigenous inhabitants never had to worry about snakebites—native kids will still shrink in terror when they first see a real snake. Somehow, snake fears are encoded in human DNA. (Just ask LeDoux, who harbors a substantial snake phobia, despite living in the relatively serpent-free confines of New York City.)
As the science journalist Rush W. Dozier points out in his useful book Fear Itself, repression-based Freudian interpretations of these preloaded fears dominated psychology for many years, often to bizarre effect. Wrote one psychoanalyst of arachnophobia, “The spider is a representative of the dangerous (orally devouring and anally castrating) mother, and… the main problem of these patients seems to center around their sexual identification and bisexuality.” This proved somewhat confusing to the phobics themselves, who thought—just like their ancestors—that they were afraid of spiders because spiders can kill you, not because they needed to ask Mom to stop with all the anal castration. But the truth is, our innate fear of these primal threats is so strong that we’re wired to identify them with astonishing quickness. In a 2008 study, two University of Virginia psychologists showed subjects a grid of nine images on a computer screen and asked them to do one of two things: find a snake among eight nonthreatening items, like flowers or frogs, or find a nonthreatening object among eight snakes. The subjects each picked out the snake image amid the harmless items far faster than they could identify the harmless item among the snakes; it seems we’re primed to spot these potential hazards before any other stimuli.
The world contains a greater variety of threats to our well-being than this primitive menagerie of creepers and crawlers, however, so evolution also endowed us with a system for rapidly assimilating new threat information. Fear learning, explains Michael Davis, the Emory psychologist, is arguably the strongest memory system we have. “The interesting thing about fear memories is that you can learn them instantly and they last a lifetime,” he told me. “There isn’t anything else that you learn instantly. Even something like your mother’s name, you’ve had many rehearsals of that, hearing it and writing it down. But what’s unique about fear conditioning is that one thing happens to you that is potentially life-threatening and you’ll never forget it. That’s very adaptive, but it’s also a problem.” Here’s why the instant learning is adaptive. Consider our caveman friend Thag once more: if he encounters an enraged mastodon, he’s going to be lucky to survive the experience just once. Ideally, then, his brain will stockpile as much information about the encounter as possible, enabling him to recognize the warning signs of another attack before it happens. So, always looking to maximize our safety, the amygdala quickly etches the rough details about the threat into its data banks so he’ll immediately go on alert when he next stumbles into a similar situation.
And this is precisely why fear learning can be a problem: the system is imprecise, but the fear memories the amygdala lays down are deep and persistent. With a single bad experience, we can become conditioned to fear things that are totally harmless. A man who gets in a horrific car accident won’t just grow skittish about driving; he might also become averse to yellow cars like the one that hit him, or to leather seats like the one in his car. Clearly, none of these details had anything to do with his accident—it’s simply another case of the rough-and-ready amygdala erring on the side of caution. Fear is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel: it goes for power over precision.
Luckily, the amygdala finds it tougher to form fears about innocuous things than about legitimate threats. In the 1980s, the psychologist Susan Mineka performed a study with baby lab monkeys to test their predisposition to form fears. Monkeys don’t share our strong innate fear of snakes, so when Mineka showed the young primates a live snake, they weren’t especially perturbed. When she showed the monkeys a video of another monkey howling in terror at a snake, though, the monkeys quickly began to ape (sorry) the fear reaction; this process is called modeling, and it’s a way for us to learn a fear without experiencing it ourselves. (If your monkey friend is freaking out about it, you don’t need to find out firsthand that it’s unpleasant, right?) But when Mineka superimposed an image of a flower over the snake in the video—so that it appeared the monkey was panicking over a rose—the baby monkeys developed no aversion to the flower at all. Forming a snake fear is effortless, but it takes a lot more to make them afraid of something as harmless as a flower. It’s the same with us. Writes Dozier, “A child can easily become afraid of snakes, but no matter how ingenious and persistent the researcher, it is almost impossible to make him afraid of a toy duck.”
Note that Dozier said almost impossible, because as the famed Johns Hopkins University behaviorist John B. Watson proved in a troubling 1920 experiment, we really can learn to fear anything—if the stimulus is made sufficiently terrifying. Since this trial predated the concept of ethics, Watson took as his subject an eleven-month-old infant, who has since been known as Little Albert. Little Albert was a placid, happy child who was cared for during the day at Baltimore’s Harriet Lane Hospital, where his mother was a nurse. (Appallingly, Albert’s mother evidently had no clue her son was being used in Watson’s experiment.) For his fear stimulus, Watson opted to use cute animals. When he first presented Little Albert with a snowy-coated rabbit or lab rat, the infant would gurgle with pleasure, as he was a natural enthusiast of fluffy, soft things. But then Watson began his conditioning. Now, every time Little Albert touched a white rat, Watson bashed a hammer into a steel bar behind the infant’s head, the earsplitting sound sending him into a state of terror. After a few exposures, the conditioning was complete: Little Albert squealed in horror at the white rat’s arrival, hurriedly attempting to crawl away. Consistent with the amygdala’s blurry vision problem, Albert’s fear generalized to all furry things; he now grew distressed when he saw dogs, fur coats, even a Santa Claus beard. Watson had planned to decondition Little Albert’s fear after the trials concluded, but as soon as the child’s mother found out about the experiment, she whisked her son away, telling no one where she was headed. Somewhat incredibly, Watson later went on to pen popular guides to child rearing. To this day, no one knows what happened to Little Albert.
In all likelihood, though, his terror lasted quite a while. According to Fanselow, the UCLA fear expert, fear conditioning can persist over an animal’s lifetime, a fact he’s proven in his own lab. “It’s actually the world record for holding a memory without any memory impairment,” he explained. “We took adult rats and did fear conditioning with them, and then we waited a year and a half. That might not sound like a long time, but it’s basically the entire adult life span of the rat. And when we tested them again with the tone, there was absolutely no forgetting of the fear. Not one bit.” This is how efficient and robust the brain’s fear system is. You can overcome a fear—a process we will explore soon enough—but like the proverbial elephant, your amygdala never forgets.
Breaking the Loop
Both in his escape from the tsunami and in its psychological aftermath, Scott Raderstorf was lucky. When he tells the story of his terrifying footrace against the churning wall of water, he does so with a mixture of awe and humor. “I’ve read guides to natural disasters since it happened, and the one that was most telling said that for tsunamis, there’s really nothing you can do,” he said with a laugh. “If you’re close enough to see a tsunami, it’s too late.” Raderstorf knows he’s fortunate to be alive, but the experience failed to traumatize him—in fact, the tsunami didn’t even spoil the family’s vacation. Because the Thai navy evacuated women and children first, Scott got separated from Joellen and the kids for a few days, but soon enough they were trekking across the globe once more. The only lingering psychological residue he carries is a recurring dream of trees and houses breaking apart under the force of the water—specifically the unnatural, low cracking noise they made, like the sound of bones breaking. Most others wouldn’t emerge so unscathed.
But Raderstorf still remembers the event as clearly as if it happened yesterday, which is common among those who go through such harrowing experiences. In part through the influence of the amygdala, emotions often amplify our memories so that the most affecting moments of our lives—both good and bad—stand out in clear relief, like mental photographs. Psychologists call this the flashbulb effect. Everyone, it is said, remembers exactly where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot, and the same is true of all tragedies, from Pearl Harbor to 9/11. (But although we’re frequently confident that we recall a flashbulb moment perfectly, we’re not always right. In one study, psychologists asked students to recount their memories of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger within a few days of the event, and then followed up with them a few years later; on the second date, the students recalled the explosion in vivid detail, but their memories were now fraught with inaccuracies.) Sometimes, these intense, emotionally charged memories become far more psychologically troublesome, as we see in the deep trauma of many combat veterans. In cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, fear and memory enter into an awful feedback loop. The vibrant memory springs out at slight provocations like the sound of a car backfiring, and the amygdala reacts to this detailed recollection as if it’s actually happening again, right now.
This is the fear mechanism at its most troubling: when our ever-vigilant security system seems to turn against us, sending us into flurries of fright over invented dangers. Even if we never go through the kind of life-threatening experiences that soldiers routinely face, each of us builds up our own unique catalog of aversions over the years. Whether it’s a dread of public speaking, a terror of flying, or a nagging tendency to worry about relationships or job security, the amygdala often develops fears we don’t want and fires away just when we’d like to feel relaxed and composed. Because we tend to see fear and anxiety as unwelcome hindrances, we often assume that we can’t exhibit grace under fire until we’ve driven them away. Fear and cool strike us as oppositional forces, like darkness and light; if you’re afraid, then you aren’t showing courage or poise, end of story.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Fear and cool are far more compatible, and even essential to each other, than you might think. Our anxieties never need to be our enemies; indeed, some of the most neurotic and fearful people on the planet are also the iciest customers under fire. What truly separates the cool-headed from the hotheads in tense times isn’t whether they feel fear—which is largely beyond their conscious control—but how they relate to their fear. Over the following chapters, we will survey two main landscapes: the hidden dynamics of fear, anxiety, and stress; and the secret ingredients that keep people poised through daunting situations. While these might seem like separate streams, both of them flow into the same river. Developing true cool isn’t just a matter of reducing the amount of fear we feel, nor is it a matter of applying a set of rules to attain perfect poise. It’s a matter of learning the right way to be afraid.
Now, at some point in the future, neuroscience may well provide a way to avoid fears and traumatic memories altogether. In 2002, for example, the Harvard University psychiatrist Roger Pitman conducted an experimental trial on recent accident victims, using the anti-hypertension drug propranolol to curb their formation of fear memories. Pitman and his team approached forty-one patients admitted to the emergency room for mishaps like car accidents, and within six hours of the event, he randomly assigned them to take either a placebo or the propranolol every day for ten days. Propranolol blocks the action of adrenaline—the same hormone that fuels the body’s fear system—and Pitman reasoned that if adrenaline couldn’t do its job, the accident victims’ memories wouldn’t receive the same traumatic charge. Sure enough, three months later, the patients who took propranolol had significantly fewer trauma symptoms than those who took the placebo. Taking this idea to a more surreal level, Joe LeDoux and his colleagues are now sketching out a method to selectively annihilate emotional memories. When you inject the brain with a chemical that inhibits protein synthesis, he explains, any memory you retrieve will fail to reconsolidate—the chemical makes the memory unfurl, as if you untied a neural knot. In the lab, LeDoux has treated his rats’ brains with such a substance and eradicated their fear of the alarming digital tone after just one exposure; days later, the rats showed no reaction to the tone at all. Used carefully, this procedure could be a boon for trauma victims, though some of the inquiries LeDoux has received about it have left him nonplussed. One man who came across his research called to ask, with the most fervent hope, if LeDoux could erase the memory of his ex-wife.
Until these cutting-edge therapies hit your local psychologist’s office, however—and don’t hold your breath quite yet—we mostly have to deal with fear the old-fashioned way. And therein lies the rub: it’s a tough task. Bad experiences etch fear memories into our brains against our will, and our amygdalae trigger fright when we want most to be unruffled. It’s not the most user-friendly system in the world, because it wasn’t intended to be fun to operate—it’s there to keep us alive. Yet most of the time when we feel anxious or stressed, it’s not about some mortal danger; we’re reacting to the tension of a math test or the pressure of a last-second basketball shot. Instead of helping us thrive, fear seems to get in our way, and we find it difficult not to see it as thwarting our chances for success. We’d like to be able to turn off the fear reaction by flicking some sort of psychological light switch, but that’s not the way the system is rigged. Fear is an incredible, powerful, truly lifesaving mechanism, yet we all struggle with its idiosyncrasies.
Luckily, as impossible as this system is to control, our fears are not necessarily our fate. No one is predestined to obey the whims of the amygdala. Adapting our behavior and beliefs can bring about huge changes in how the amygdala expresses fear; we can even help our brains learn to inhibit the fear response before it ever gets off the ground. This, too, is a neurological process that researchers are only now beginning to understand, but one finding is abundantly clear: we can get over virtually any fear if we approach it the right way. Of course, stepping onto this path can be a bit tricky—but not because approaching fear wisely is complex or unnatural. No, the biggest hitch in getting over our fears is that these days, we’ve fallen into the baffling habit of addressing them as unwisely as humanly possible.
Excerpted from Nerve by Clark, Taylor Copyright © 2011 by Clark, Taylor. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Taylor Clark is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of Dartmouth College and a Pacific Northwest native, he has written for GQ, Slate, and Psychology Today, among other publications.
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