Oct 19, 2018

How your brain works when you're brave

A Human brain wearing a superhero cake.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Scientists have learned a lot about how our brains work in dangerous situations — and how they work in people who have learned to control their fears, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Why it matters: If science can find ways to make us braver — not stupidly brave, just better able to face danger — we might all be more functional people and be more willing to take risks, from starting businesses to living more adventurous lives.

We might also be able to treat serious conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.

How fear works, per the WSJ:

  • A protein called stathmin — which works in the amygdala, an area deep the brain that produces fear and anxiety — seems to have an important role, since mice that were bred not to have it were more willing to explore their surroundings.
  • There are also structures of the brain that help resist the cues from the amygdala.
  • A hormone called oxytocin helps mothers overcome their fears when their children are in danger, according to a study of maternal instinct in mammals.
  • People can be trained to control their fears, too. Military training helps, as the WSJ notes in the harrowing story of a British bomb disposal officer who stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost both of his legs.

One way the scientists can be so sure: They've scanned the brain of Alex Honnold, the guy who climbed El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without ropes. (He's featured in the documentary "Free Solo.") "When exposed to images that excite the amygdala in most people, his brain scans showed no response," per the WSJ.

The bottom line: There's no clear roadmap or timetable for when science will allow us to control these factors. But now that we're getting such a clear idea of how it works, it's probably just a matter of time.

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