A Strange Calm in a Sea of Danger

An uncanny thing about life-or-death crises is how often those in them don’t feel fear. Time and again, I’ve heard from people who’ve had a close brush with death and didn’t experience any emotion at all. In the moment, they felt calm and focused. Everything seemed crystal clear. They saw what they needed to do and they did it. Only afterward, when they found themselves in a place of safety, did they become overwhelmed with emotion.

In the book I tell the story of Johan Otter, who was hiking in Glacier National Park with his daughter when they were attacked by a grizzly. Stepping between the bear and his child, he fought it off as best he could until he felt the animal’s massive jaws locked on his head. “I felt a tooth going into my skull and I thought, ‘This is going to be it.’” Otter says.

There was only option: to break free of the bear and jump off the cliff. It was several hundred feet to the bottom, but to Otter the choice was clear. “It sounds very weird, but I was very methodical,” says. “There was no room for emotions. It was like, ‘This is what’s a better option now.’”

He pulled away and plummeted down the cliff. By chance, a small ledge protruded from the side of the mountain 25 feet down, and it stopped his fall. The bear peered down at him, unable to follow. Eventually it wandered off.

Otter was in bad shape. His scalp was ripped off, his arms were torn down to the tendons, his neck was broken in two places, and he was losing blood. A stream of cold rainwater runoff drenched him. Yet he felt oddly elated. “It was much more important that I was alive. You kind of have this euphoria, in a way, that you’re still alive.”

After an hour, passing hikers found the pair and called for help. Six hours after the attack,  Otter and his daughter were medevaced off the mountain helicopter. A long road of recovery and rehabilitation lay ahead for Otter, including three months with his head wired in a metal halo.

Throughout the whole ordeal, Otter says, he wasn’t conscious of any feelings of fear. “There wasn’t any room for fear. I had to intellectualize myself, basically, through that whole event. I was not afraid until three months later, when my halo was taken off. Suddenly I didn’t have that external protection around me anymore, and I was like, okay, I am so afraid right now. I remember saying to my wife, and I just started crying, ‘I am so afraid. I should have been so afraid.’ I remember saying that: ‘Man, I should have been so afraid, and I totally was not.’”

How is it possible to be faced with the greatest danger and not feel fear? Says psychologist David Eagleman, “what happens in a really scary situation is that all the nonessential processes like that get shut down and your whole brain, or as much of your processing power as you have, gets devoted to this one thing going on.”

The key hormone in this process is noradrenaline, the form of adrenaline that is released within the brain as part of the fight-or-flight response. According to a recent study described in the New Scientist, noradrenaline is also intimately bound up in our everyday decision making. Australian neuroscientist Olivia Carter asked volunteers to choose a number from a sequence of digits that were displayed one by one on a screen, and then to push a button indicating their choice when the sequence was done. Carter found that the subjects’ pupils were widest during the few seconds when their number was on the screen. Since the pupil-dilation response is mediated by noradrenaline, she concluded that the mere act of making a decision stimulates the noradrenaline response.

Thus, it seems likely that when this circuitry becomes activated by the brain’s perception of danger, it can alter cognition two ways: on the one hand, by helping to filter out information that isn’t relevant to the threat on hand, and second by somehow facilitating the act of decision-making itself.

Have you ever experienced this kind of effect yourself? If any readers would like to share their experiences, I’d be very interested to hear them. You can post them in a comment here or on my Extreme Fear website.  As Eagleman told me, “Intense fear is a foreign experience when it happens, because we’re really not used to what it does to our thoughts and perceptions.” Hopefully by understanding what others have gone through, and delving into the circuitry behind the fear response, we can better prepare ourselves to handle our own crises in the future.

With that in mind, I’ll be addressing other aspects of the fear response in future posts, incorporating the experiences of readers, and also sharing thoughts through my Twitter feed, #extremefear.