You can study the psychology of fear until the cows come home; it’s not going to do much to keep your heebie-jeebies under control when you’re about to jump into a gap in six-foot-thick sea ice.
I shuffle closer to the edge of the five-by-five foot hole that’s been chainsawed into the ice. I have no real reason to be jumping into the frozen-over Hudson Bay. I’ve come up here for a totally different reason—to do a story about igloo building for a men’s magazine. But the trip’s organizers added a couple of extra days onto my itinerary so that I could get a taste for the local Inuit culture—riding on a dogsled, eating raw caribou meat — oh, and going scuba diving under the sea ice. Care to give it a try, Mr. Wise?
I couldn’t say no. Stunts like this are basically what I do for a living. I’m a magazine writer specializing in experiential adventures like skydiving, surfing, and survival training. Along the way, I developed an interest in the psychology of intense pressure and wrote a book on it. So though the idea of scuba diving under ice scares the crap out of me, that’s all the more reason I should do it.
And it does scare the crap out of me. Immersion in 32 degree water sounds bad enough, but to be trapped under six feet of ice as well? There’s a section of my book about how deadly that kind of thing can be. If a diver panics, the instinctive response is to rip away anything that blocks the airway – in this case, the regulator. In an enclosed space far from the surface, there may be no chance to recover from that mistake. Ironically, just knowing that the possibility exists makes it more likely to happen. “Well, let’s see how it goes,” I tell the organizers.
You’re having a bad day. You snap at your spouse, act short with your colleagues, and cut off other drivers on your commute home. Are you the victim of a bad mood? Or is your problem that your brain is infected with behavior-modifying parasites?
It’s a disgusting prospect, but a brain infection might well be the cause.
There’s something innately repellent about parasites – organisms that invade their hosts and feast upon their bodies from within. But in the gallery of biological horrors a special place has to be reserved for that bizarre and horrid class of parasites which hijack not only their hosts’ bodies but their brains as well, causing them to engage in behavior that suits the purposes of the invading organism.
When the stakes are high, even world-class athletes can dramatically cave under pressure — the dreaded specter of choking. As I describe in my book, garden-variety choking is a catastrophic result of social fear, which causes all kinds of performers — from athletes to actors, and even ordinary people in the bedroom — to become painfully self-aware in a way that undermines the smooth flow of their well-practiced automaticity.
New studies from Europe, however, points to other ways in which anxiety on the playing field can cause athletes to screw up.
Remarkable news on the memory-erasure front. A team led by Elizabeth Phelps at New York University has published a report in Nature this week about a technique for wiping out unpleasant associations by taking advantage of a psychological process known as reconsolidation. A good deal of research has gone on lately into the erasure of unpleasant memories, with the goal of treating people suffering from anxiety and PTSD, but so far the focus has been on using drugs, as I’ve described earlier.
This kind of emotional memory is processed in the amygdala, a crucial hub for coordinating the brain’s response to danger. Fear memories can be problematic because, unlike the conscious, “explicit” memories that are formed via the hippocampus — things like the name of a friend, or the number of pints in a gallon — they do not fade with time in the same way. As I write in Chapter 10 of Extreme Fear:
The amygdala’s memory system retains frightening associations permanently. If you’ve been bitten by white dog, your amygdala will never forget. But the memory can get overlaid by a positive or neutral association. If you later buy a friendly white dog, say, and spend day after day associating your pet with harmless fun, in time your fear of white dogs will be overlaid by a suppressing response generated by the medial prefrontal cortex. Your amygdala isn’t forgetting that white dogs are dangerous, but you’ve laid a new memory on top of it, like a linoleum floor over a trap door. The old unconscious fear connection remains, encoded subconsciously in the amygdala. Under stress, the buried fear can spontaneously reemerge.
In her study, Phelps explored the effect on extinction of reconsolidation, an intriguing effect in which a memory that has been recalled into consciousness becomes temporarily malleable and subject to change. Previous experimenters have administered drugs, such as the beta-blocker propranalol, during the reconsolidation phase, and found that this can help erase painful memories. Phelps’ experiment was designed to see whether a similar effect could be obtained without the use of drugs. And the surprising answer was yes.
Another perspective on getting swept away unexpectedly.
The incident took place last April in Haines, Alaska. The helmet-cam belongs to Chris Cardello. According to Freeskier magazine, Cardello was wearing a device called an Avalung that allowed up to breathe while trapped in the concrete-like snowpack:
Chris described it like this: “When the slide propagated, I tried to remain as composed as possible and make sure my AvaLung was in. As I was getting buried and the slide slowed, I threw one hand up and with my other hand I grasped the AvaLung, which had been ripped out of my mouth during the turbulent ride. While I was buried, I tried to be as calm as possible—I knew my hand was exposed so my crew would be digging me out shortly. I was able to breathe through the AvaLung, but it was difficult due to the snow jammed down my throat.”
To me the most interesting thing about this quote is Cardello’s statement that “I tried to be as calm as possible.” How does one do that? Famously, survival experts say that in a life-or-death situation, the most important thing to do is not to panic. This has always struck me as a rather absurd idea, since surely no one chooses to panic. But I think I understand what Cardello meant. Trapped under the snow, his heart racing, the possibility of death very close at hand, he must have felt himself on the edge of losing control. And yet he willed himself to keep it together. He fought back the creeping panic. In neurological terms, his prefrontal cortex maintained dominance over his amygdala. Sounds simple — but it’s a lot easier said than done.
We don’t expect to have our lives upended suddenly and unexpectedly, but that’s how fear often intrudes in our daily lives.
This footage shows a rockslide in Polk County, TN, that was captured by a local news crew filming the cleanup of a previous rockslide. Watching the torrent of boulders and trees reminds me of the avalanche that struck Dave Boon when he was driving with his wife on a highway near Denver. One minute he was chatting with his wife, the next he was hurtling end-over-end down the side of a mountain. Time and again, survivors of disasters report thinking to themselves: “This can’t be real.” Looking at this footage, it’s easy to relate to that sense of disbelief.
The human brain is very good at forgetting, a fact that I was recently reminded of when my bank asked me to choose from a series of “security questions” as part of an account upgrade. What was the name of my third-grade teacher? What was the name of the street my school was on? What city was my mother born in? I was astonished at how little of this kind of thing remained in my memory bank.
Forgetting this kind of explicit memory comes easily, but there’s another kind of memory we’re not so good at erasing. Memories of fearful experiences seem to stay with us forever. To the extent that their impact fades over time, it’s not because we forget them, but that our brains gradually suppress them. They’re forgotten, but not gone. And they can cause problems for people suffering from emotional trauma, when buried memories come roaring back to inflict pain all over again.
It would be better if the brain were able to forget some kinds of fearful memories just it can things like names and phone numbers – and a recently published paper presents evidence that might just be possible. Researcher Nadine Gogolla and colleagues demonstrated that as the brain of a baby mouse matures, its ability to form permanent fear memories develops at the same time as a net-like structure forms in the amygdala, where emotions are processed and fear-related memories are stored. Made of proteins called chondroitin sulfate proteoglycans, this “neural net” structures seem to prevent memories from being erased. When they’re disrupted by a drug, mice are more likely to lose those memories.
The finding points the way to a possible therapy for human fears: a drug that would alter the formation or functioning of the “neural net” and thereby allow people to shed troubling and disturbing memories. It’s still a long way off, but the research indicates that it could at least be possible.
One of the most powerful anxiolytics — that is, compounds which reduce fear and anxiety –is oxytocin, the hormone of mammalian bonding. Social acts like hugging, touching, and having sex all increase our levels of oxytocin; people who have recently had penetrative sexual intercourse have been found to exhibit less fear in social settings.
Of course, the ultimate oxytocin-generating experience is giving birth to and nursing an infant, and nothing is more fearless than a mother protecting her child. Having become a father a year ago, I can understand what the woman on this train platform must have been going through as she realized what was about to happen.
I wonder if oxytocin might take its effect, at least in part, by somehow affecting the way that our brains process “self” and “other” — bringing those we love and feel affection over the boundary and making them, in effect, part of ourselves. About six years ago I remember being repulsed by the sight of my sister casually picking a piece of half-chewed banana off her baby daughter’s bib and popping it into her mouth. Since my son was born, I find myself doing this sort of thing all the time. Eating my son’s half-eaten food isn’t like eating someone else’s chewed-up, spit-covered gunk, it’s like eating my own.
The only problem with my theory is that watching your baby roll under a train wouldn’t be as bad as going under a train yourself; it would be worse.
Being looked at by strangers is a primal trigger of anxiety and stress. The essence of courage is persevering in the face of intense fear. Therefore, this young man deserves the Medal of Honor.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave — or using dialup, or both — you’ve probably already seen this clip. But I post it again to pose the philosophical question: how can watching someone in the grip of intense terror be so damned funny?