Fearless Fantasies

How would your life be different if you were incapable of feeling fear? Would your life be better or worse than it is now?

In 2010, Current Biology published a study detailing a middle aged woman known only as “SM” who suffers from a rare form of brain damage which inhibits her from feeling fear.

A genetic disorder called Urbach-Wiethe disease destroyed both sides of SM’s amygdala which has been strongly implicated in fear processing during experiments on animals but, before SM, scientists were unable to determine if living things with damaged amygdala could still consciously feel fear.

SM recalls only once feeling such an emotion, and this was during a fishing trip with her father when she thought that a catfish might bite her. SM is not afraid of tangible things that others may find scary, such as public speaking and nor does she fear death or being judged negatively in social settings.

Horror films and poisonous animals piqued SM’s interest and curiosity, and this was not curbed even when she knew the possible bad outcomes. Study coauthor Justin Feinstein of the University of Iowa in Iowa City noted that, in the case of the animals, SM did not just have no fear but was actively approaching things that she should have been avoiding suggesting that the amygdala is acting at a very instinctual, unconscious level.

This was also the case when she was held at knife point while walking in the park. SM did not report the incident to the police as she did not see the danger. SM had no traumatic memories of the incident. Professor Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist also at the University of Iowa concluded that, the less fear you have, the more terrible things can happen to you but you don’t personally experience them as terrible. On the other side, fear can protect you from the majority of the bad things but life is likely to be more painful because of those few. Therefore, is it better to be fearful or fearless?

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Some of those scenarios tested on SM seem obvious to those who know fear. Those people will fear the things that they can quantify into positive and negative outcomes where the negative (or probability thereof) outweighs the positive. They will work out this balance based on actual learning, maybe genetics, and life experience.

For example, when Paul Rosolie decided to be eaten by an anaconda he did it because he knew full well that it would (try to) eat him, but he thought he could gain something from having done it. The balance fell in favour of giving it a go despite the fact it could have ended in unmitigated failure.

Some people will get every job they apply for so won’t fear taking a risk on one that might not work out because another is easily within reach. Some people may have had something end very badly so won’t commit to a similar experience in case it happens again. (I know that flying long haul makes me sick unless I have a pre-boarding fry-up, but if I’m sick with bacon and black-pudding in situ then that ain’t gonna be pretty!)

Would life be different if I didn’t fear anything? Not sure. I might have done other things, but I don’t know if the result would have be anywhere other than where I am now.

I wait for you, I always do
Can’t fight the feeling, that I am feeling
I need to stop, I can’t get off
I need to show you, oh so let me show you
Have no fear
Have no fear

I cant pretend it’s easy to change and I cant be sure it wont go away
But I’m gonna be here right until the end
She speaks softly, and cries out loud

When will it stop? I cant get off
I need to show you, so let me show you
Have no fear
Have no fear
Have no fear
Have no fear

I cant pretend it’s easy to change and I cant be sure it wont go away
But I’m gonna be here right until the end
She speaks softly, and cries out loud

Help me to stop
I need, I need
Help me to stop

She speaks softly, and cries out loud
I cant pretend it’s easy to change and I cant be sure it wont go away
But I’m gonna be here right until the end
She speaks softly, and cries out loud
Cries out loud

Have No Fear by Haven

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