Fear-watching

I am in the middle of reading Alec Wilkinson’s fascinating New Yorker story about Swedish explorer S.A. Andree, who tried to be the first man to reach the North Pole by floating there in a helium balloon. Turned out to be a bad idea.

As part of his self-education into aeronautics, Andree took his first balloon ride at the age of 38. The year was 1892. In an age when traveling by air was still a novel and rather far-fetched idea, it must have been far more terrifying than we can imagine today. As he prepared to board the contraption, Andree must have wondered whether he would feel fear or not. Ever the man of science, he decided to pay careful attention to his body’s reaction.

Andree wrote that he was preoccupied with observing himself to determine whether he was afraid. He was surprised to find himself, as the balloon left the ground, holding tight to the ropes encircling the basket. “I discovered  that I was not conscious of any feeling of fear, but that I probably was influenced by it unconsciously,” he wrote.

Andree’s insight prefigured what we now know about the psychodynamics of fear: namely, that our conscious estimations of our present danger can bear little relationship to the alarm raised by our subconscious fear center, the amygdala. It’s impossible, as Andree found, to simply will ourselves to be brave. I’ve experienced this unique brand of helplessness many times — standing on a bungee bridge, say, or dangling beneath the wing of an ultralight plane. The fear’s there, and it won’t go away. The best that I can do is observe it, get to know it’s patterns, so that in the future I can at least figure out how to work around it.

In Andree’s case, he probably should have paid closer heed to what his amygdala was telling him. Instead, he continued with his ballooning schemes, and I don’t think it will ruin Wilkinson’s tale if I tell you it ends badly: the story begins with the discovery of his skeletal body, decades after his final flight, on a remote Arctic island.