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A Fearless Brain Teaches Us about Cognitive Enhancement

What if you were afraid of nothing. If you were dropped into the African savannah at night, you could just stroll on through to the nearest town, find a place to sleep for the night, and continue on the next day. Transported to the inner city housing projects in Mexico City? No worries – say hola to your hombre and enjoy a burrito with some cerveza. Is the IRS knocking on your door? You’re not worried – you will find a way to settle things out.

While this may seem ridiculous to even consider, there are a few people who fear nothing. Their brains are not capable of sensing fear. This is not natural, and this kind of fearlessness is usually the result of some sort of brain damage in the fear center of the brain – the amygdala. In normal situations that would make the rest of us weak in the knees, these people are not affected. However, no one is bulletproof.

Recent studies found that even these so-called fearless people were capable of feeling panic, and subsequently, fear. However, before understanding this phenomenon, it is integral to classify fear into two categories. The first type of fear is the one we are most familiar with – fear of external threats. If someone is trying to hurt you, if a rabid dog is chasing you, or if your military drill instructor is yelling at you, you may experience fear from these external sources. This external fear center is the amygdala that we looked at already. However, there is another type of fear that the body processes – the fear from internal threats. These include heart attacks, suffocation, and other such life-threatening situations. The brain must create its opinion of fear.

Knowing how the brain does this is helping neuroscientists figure out how panic attacks form. It seems that panic attacks are caused by the second variety of fear – the fear of internal threats. The brain creates this condition on its own, sometimes without cause. The next research steps in this field will include ways to create and suppress both kinds of fear.

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