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15 August 2015 @ 11:35 am
Fearless is a disorder  
Since the topic of Fear has been on my mind a lot lately I remembered an article I read years ago about a woman that was fearless. I tried to find where I posted about it but it's one of my few annoying improperly tagged posts. So I'll repost it here. Studying people that are fearless is very difficult because they are very rare. They are rare because they die. They do not take measures to avoid dangerous situations because they are no afraid. What I liked about this study was that this woman had all her other emotions in tact. Again Fear is very strange as it has its own section of the brain away from the other emotions. It is in the amygdala and this is what was damaged in her. This article is from Dec of 2010. Here it is.

A 44-year-old woman who doesn't experience fear has led to the discovery of where that fright factor lives in the human brain.

Researchers put out their best foot to try to scare the patient, who they refer to as "SM" in their write-up in the most recent issue of the journal Current Biology. Haunted houses, where monsters tried to evoke an avoidance reaction, instead evoked curiosity; spiders and snakes didn't do the trick; and a battery of scary film clips entertained SM.

The patient has a rare condition called Urbach–Wiethe disease that has destroyed her amygdala, the almond-shaped structure located deep in the brain. Over the past 50 years studies have shown the amygdala plays a central role in generating fear responses in various animals from rats to monkeys.

The new study involving SM is the first to confirm that brain region is also responsible for experiencing fear in humans. "This is the first study to systematically investigate the experience or feeling of fear in humans with amygdala damage," lead author Justin Feinstein told LiveScience.

The finding, the researchers say, could lead to treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers and others. "My hope is to expand on this work and search for psychotherapy treatments that selectively target and dampen down hyperactivity in the amygdala of patients with PTSD," said Feinstein, who is a doctoral student studying clinical neuropsychology at the University of Iowa.

Over the past year, Feinstein has been treating PTSD in veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing first-hand the effects.

"Their lives are marred by fear, and they are oftentimes unable to even leave their home due to the ever-present feeling of danger," Feinstein said. In contrast, SM is immune to this stress. "Traumatic events leave no emotional imprint on her brain," he said.

Are you scared?

Previous studies with this patient revealed she can't recognize fear in facial expressions, but it was unknown if she had the ability to experience fear herself.

To find out, Feinstein and his colleagues measured the patient's experience of fear with several standardized questionnaires that probed different aspects of fear, ranging from the fear of death to the fear of public speaking. [Fear of Spiders & 9 Other Phobias]

In addition, for three months SM carried a computerized emotion diary that randomly asked her to rate her current fear level throughout the day. The diary also had her indicate emotions she was feeling from a list of 50 items. Her average score of fear was 0 percent, while for other emotions she showed normal functioning.

Across all of the scenarios, she showed no fear. Looking into her past, the researchers found lots of reasons for her to react with fear. In fact, she told them she didn't like snakes, but when brought into contact with the two characters, she was fearless.

The good and bad of being fearless

Her eldest son (she has three children) in his early 20s recalls this instance: "Me and my brothers were playing in the yard and mom was outside sitting on the porch. All of a sudden we see this snake on the road. It was a one lane road, and seriously, it touched from one end of the yard all the way to the other side of the road. I was like, 'Holy cow, that's a big snake!' Well mom just ran over there and picked it up and brought it out of the street, put it in the grass and let it go on its way…"

That's not all. She has been held up at knife point and at gun point, physically accosted by a woman twice her size, nearly killed in an act of domestic violence, and on more than one occasion explicitly threatened with death, the researchers wrote in the journal article. Police reports corroborated these experiences and revealed the poverty-stricken area where she lived. SM has never been convicted of a crime.

"What stands out most is that, in many of these situations, SM's life was in danger, yet her behavior lacked any sense of desperation or urgency," the researchers wrote.

And when she was asked to recollect how she felt during those situations, SM said she didn't feel fear but did feel upset and angry about what happened. "Without fear, it can be said that SM's distress lacks the deep heartfelt intensity endured by most survivors of trauma," the researchers wrote.

Essentially, due to the amygdala damage the woman is "immune to the devastating effects of posttraumatic stress disorder," they wrote.

As always, there are tradeoffs as such an inability to detect and avoid threatening situations likely contributed to the frequency with which she's had life-threatening run-ins, the researchers suggest.

To firm up the phenomenon, Feinstein says studying other patients with damaged amygdalas would be great. "Unfortunately, such patients are so rare that it is nearly impossible to find them," he said, adding that there is much to be learned from a single patient.

The National Institutes of Health and a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship provided funding for the study.


This is quite fascinating to me. An incredibly primal and difficult emotion to master but without it we would not be safe so it's needed. It's been five years since this article. I wonder if she's still alive? It's amazing she even made it to 44.
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audes_ljaudes_lj on August 15th, 2015 05:02 pm (UTC)
Hmm, I see. It does make sense that it severely decreases chance of survival of a person as it does make people careless in situations that are life-threatening. I am not sure if a reasonable person with such a disorder would still be able to logically evaluate that something is dangerous and should be avoided. Being unsure about the test subjects personality type that may require a bit of guessing, but I guess it will increase the chances regardless.

I guess that it is in any case good to learn more as PTSD is certainly an issue for many people. Not just soldiers, many people may live through experiences that can leave their mark.
Desthagirion on August 15th, 2015 11:19 pm (UTC)
Yes. Not running from people with weapons when you do not have a weapon yourself is not a good idea. A healthy fear would make it obvious to run or avoid the situation all together.
I'm not so interested in applications for medicine but more for my own curiosity. Actually being so detached if someone has a phobia I don't, which is most of them, I just don't understand it or get sympathy for it.
actipton80actipton80 on August 15th, 2015 06:18 pm (UTC)
I remember reading about her. I think she was in a book that Temple Grandin wrote about the basic emotions in animals and people. I think the book also said that the amygdala is bigger and more developed in birds than mammals, and in birds it does a lot more than be the fear center of the brain.
Desthagirion on August 15th, 2015 11:16 pm (UTC)
Oh neat. Oooh I'm curious about what it's like in birds now. Birds are very frightened creatures. So many things scare them easily.
kabuldur: Asterkabuldur on August 17th, 2015 10:56 am (UTC)
Very interesting.

Yes, fear effects most of our lives, yet it is necessary.

Good that it may be of some indirect help for PTSD sufferers.
Desthagirion on August 17th, 2015 12:29 pm (UTC)
It was a very neat study they did.
Yes unfortunately it is something we need even on basic everyday levels.