I was listening to NPR's Science Friday yesterday and came across a really fascinating discussion about a woman, known as SM, who experiences no fear. SM has a rare condition which has caused bilaterla focal lesions on her amygdala, providing very limited function. Thus, SM does not experience fear like the rest of us. Current Biology recently published a case study of her.
Researchers at University of Iowa have been studying SM for several decades now. They have showed her snakes, spiders, taken her to haunted houses, etc.-things that provoke fear in many people, but she does not feel fear. She does, however, know what fear is intellectually and feels other emotions like surprise, worry and some anxiety. This experience of not feeling fear has put her in dangerous situations that many of us would avoid. For example, she once approached a "drugged out" looking man late at night alone. The man put a knife to her throat, threatening to kill her and she coolly replied, "If you're going to kill me, you're going to have to go through my God's angels first." Then, the man let her go and she walked home.
It's actually remarkable that she is still alive if she has continually placed herself in these dangerous situations, but at the same time, there is something truly intriguing about this case, especially since once again the amygdala is involved.
The amygdala is a pretty unique structure in our brains. Besides fear conditioning, it is involved in other emotions such as the processing of rewards, learning, and motivation, as well as cognitive functions like memory, attention, and perception. Various studies have also shown the amygdala is implicated in eating disorders and addiction, including the processing of rewards.
After hearing SM's story, it really made me wonder what it would be like to live in a world of no fear. Though I doubt I would want to have this extremeness of fearlessness much the same way I would not want to be one of those people who never feel pain (congenital analgesia), but at times, I do think it would nice.
Much of my fear has been less with actual tangible objects but more abstract ones--fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of life, fear of recovery, fear of what people think, fear of never measuring up, etc. I know fear is much like stress with its advantages and disadvantages, and it depends on how we function and cope with it. For me, like many others, it's been in unhealthy ways. And it's only been through recovery and learning that I want and can have a different life, that I've been able to process the fear better.
There's still a ways to go. It seems every time I'm faced with a major life decision, I revert back to this fearful thinking of my incapabilities, but each bout is less fearful than the first. And for that, I am thankful as no one should live paralyzed by fear, whatever it may be.