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The pinnacle of courage

What exactly happens in the brain when we act courageously?

A face expressing fear from the book "The expressions of fear in mother and beast" written by Darwin
A face expressing fear from the book "The expressions of fear in mother and beast" written by Darwin

Spiders, injections, exams - we all have fears. And yet, most of us, if not all of us, are sometimes able to act courageously, whether in everyday life or in emergency situations. Courage is the overcoming of fear, that is, the choice to act contrary to what the fears try to dictate to us. But what exactly happens in the brain when we act bravely?

It is difficult to study the brain mechanisms of courage, not only because acts of courage are usually one-time and unpredictable, but also because imaging brain activity while performing the behavior requires the subject to lie motionless inside the imaging device. Prof. Yadin Dodai and research student Uri Neely, from the Department of Neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute of Science, together with their colleagues Hagar Goldberg from the Weizmann Institute and Prof. Avraham Weizmann from the Gaha Medical Center, found a way to do this, and as a result were able to identify for the first time the brain area responsible for courage. To this end, they designed an experiment that allows them to examine what is going on in the minds of people who are afraid of snakes while they are trying to overcome their fear of a live snake, and thus study the neural mechanisms of courage in a controlled manner. The experiment was done with the assistance of Dr. Edna Furman-Haran, Nahum Stern and Fani Atar from the Center for Human Brain Imaging at the Institute.

The volunteers who participated in the experiment were divided into two groups, according to a questionnaire that rated their degree of fear: the fearful group, in which snakes arouse great fear, and the "fearless" group who are not afraid of snakes.

The volunteers from both groups entered an fMRI scanner. Behind their heads was installed a conveyor belt with a large snake attached to the cart with a special collar. The volunteers could control the movement of the cart - to move away from or close to their head - using a button. The task assigned to them was to bring the cart, with the moving snake on it, to their backs - as close as they dared. In addition to the fMRI scan, the scientists also tested the physiological response of the volunteers to fear, by measuring the conductivity of the skin - which is a measure of sweating, and therefore the learning of physical arousal - in a similar way to how a "truth machine" works.

The findings of the study, recently published in the journal Neuron, show that while the fearful overcame their fear and brought the snake closer to them, a specific area in the front of their brain was activated. The activity in the area was stronger as the level of fear of the volunteers was higher. This mental activity did not take place in the minds of the fearless, whose proximity to the snake did not require them to behave with special courage. Regarding this area of ​​the brain, it was previously found to be related, among other things, to depression. Increased activity of the courage center was accompanied by a decrease in sweating.

The researchers also found that the neural activity in another brain structure in the middle of the brain, known to mediate fear responses - the "tonsillar body", or the amygdala - was the opposite of that which occurred in the courage center: when the fearful overcame fear, a decrease in amygdala activity was seen, while when they succumbed to fear, it increased the activity Following the findings, the researchers proposed that there is a brain mechanism that involves a mutual reaction between nerve networks in the brain, which allows a person to overcome fear, with a momentary decision, and perform a courageous activity.

Uri Neely: "Our findings show how the activity of the 'Courage Center' suppresses certain aspects of the fear response mediated by the activity of the amygdala, thus enabling the courageous action." Prof. Dudai: "These findings shed light on the brain activity that underlies essential and noble human behavior. In addition, they will be able to lead to a better understanding of what happens in the brain when fear acquires excessive control over it - as, for example, in cases of various anxiety disorders. Such an understanding can lead, in the future, to the development of methods that will affect the activity in these areas of the brain, in order to treat anxiety disorders."

11 תגובות

  1. Alon - that's not accurate.
    The subjective dermitol cannot allow the princicuta to do anything, or almost nothing which completely rules out the possibility of any activity in the amygdala and therefore no neurotransmitter. Another thing, which may appear to be unrelated, is the pre-cellular behavior of the pixel gland, which immediately upon starting its operation completely disrupts the cell's socket. True - it has not yet been tested in all directions, but it turns out that this is the way. 

  2. Not renewing much.

    Brain activity during fear has been studied for years.
    According to what I know, the process works like this: we saw a snake - the visual area of ​​the brain is stimulated, transmits a signal (neurotransmitter and currents) through associative areas (that interpret what we saw) to the amygdala and we are afraid, now to overcome the fear we must be aware of the cause of the fear and consciously resist this feeling, This awareness originates from the frontal lobe which sends neurotransmitters that inhibit the activity in the amygdala.

  3. Thanks Aria.

    I didn't know the answer and I enjoyed seeing that my intuition was right this time.

    Your question is relevant. I asked no. I was simply linking various elements here with things I heard elsewhere.

  4. Yuval - to your question - lobotomy has also been associated with depression and anxiety. Why do you ask and why in this article? And in general, who does a lobotomy today?

  5. Interesting correlation study. It may not be very comprehensive and apparently, as Yair says, its results should be treated with modesty - still circumstantial evidence is all we have at the moment and it is a pretty good basic background material for further research. It is interesting and perhaps preliminary (I am not familiar with the literature on this matter) that there is an inverse relationship between the amygdala and another center in the brain. They would do well to continue using this great tool called fMRI

    Finished a good signature for the readers of the righteous science

  6. That is, 'courage' is not 'fearlessness', but 'courage' is a tool to deal with 'fear'.
    And as a tool if you have it and know how to use it, only then is it really helpful.

  7. Yair - In my opinion, one interesting result from the research is that dealing with fear (discovering "courage") is independent of activity in the amygdala but rather on activity in another area of ​​the brain. That is, the demonstration of "courage" is not related to a decrease in the level of fear or a change in the mechanism of fear.

  8. The area of ​​courage? Or the fear zone? Or the depression area? Or the imagination development area? Or the snake area? The Flying Spaghetti Monster area? And the area of ​​neglect and autism?
    Do not rush to buy the decisive conclusion about the "area of ​​courage". The activity or lack thereof in that area has other ways to explain it.

  9. Who even talks about a "truth machine"? Besides, whoever would convert to a mistake of 1.4% error percentage is a charlatan. That's also what they said about the old model, right? 1% error.
    By the way, I only know two people who were tested with a truth machine and both of them came out lying even though it later turned out that they were telling the truth...

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