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A middle-aged woman known as SM blithely reaches for poisonous snakes, giggles in haunted houses and once, upon escaping the clutches of a knife-wielding man, didn’t run but calmly walked away. A rare kind of brain damage precludes her from experiencing fear of any sort, finds a study published online December 16 in Current Biology.
SM has an unusual genetic disorder called Urbach-Wiethe disease. In late childhood, this disease destroyed both sides of her amygdala, which is composed of two structures the shape and size of almonds, one on each side of the brain. Because of this brain damage, the woman knows no fear, the researchers found.
Experiments have strongly implicated the amygdala in fear processing. Many of these were conducted on animals with amygdala damage. “But one thing we’ve never known for sure, because they’re animals, is whether they can consciously feel fear,” says study coauthor Justin Feinstein of the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “So we said, ‘Let’s take a human patient who has this same sort of damage, and for the first time, actually figure out how they’re feeling.’”
Feinstein and his colleagues sifted through SM’s past, looking for instances when she should have been scared. SM said she never felt fear, even when threatened with a knife or a gun. The researchers gave SM an electronic diary that she carried for three months to record her emotional state. Fear didn’t make an appearance in the list of emotions. On a battery of questionnaires, SM wrote that she wasn’t afraid of public speaking, death, her heart beating too fast or being judged negatively in a social setting.
Next, the researchers did their best to scare SM. They showed her clips from The Blair Witch Project, The Shining and Silence of the Lambs: She was interested, but not afraid. The Waverly Hills Sanatorium Haunted House in Kentucky didn’t faze her. Instead of screaming, she laughed and poked one of the monsters in the head. The team took her to an exotic pet store with poisonous snakes and spiders. SM claimed to dislike the animals, but when she saw them she was overcome with curiosity, repeatedly asking to touch the snakes.
“What that suggests to us is that perhaps the amygdala is acting at a very instinctual, unconscious level,” says Feinstein. “Without this area, instead of just losing your interest in things, you do the very thing that’s opposite. She tends to approach the very things she should be avoiding.”
Although the new study is based on a single patient, it is “a particularly clear example” of how the amygdala is important for fear, says neuroscientist Hans Markowitsch of the University of Bielefeld in Germany. “The woman indeed had almost no fear in quite divergent situations.”
Markowitsch cautions that a study on a single person can’t be extended to apply to other people, since many other factors influence how the brain and emotions work.
What’s more, pinning a complex emotional state to a single brain structure isn’t straightforward. “When you have to name a structure relevant for fear in the brain, everyone comes up with the amygdala,” Markowitsch says. “But one could argue that the amygdala cannot act on its own — it’s dependent on connections, on circuits, on other brain regions.”
The study’s authors can’t dismiss other brain regions’ roles in experiencing fear. Yet SM’s complete inability to experience the emotion — in a wide variety of forms — highlights the amygdala’s pivotal role in feeling afraid.
Originally posted by RSF77
reply to post by jrmcleod
I would like to think that I wouldn't and just remain inquisitive, but I might just have to # myself before I start asking them questions about the universe. So hopefully they have restrooms on board.
Originally posted by RSF77
Is fear a form of anxiety or visa versa?
I wonder if the woman has any feelings of anxiety? This could possibly lead to something helpful for people who experience a lot of anxiety. A drug that affects that area of the brain, or would that be too artificial and/or prone to misuse by the government? Not that they probably wouldn't already know about it.edit on 18-12-2010 by RSF77 because: (no reason given)
I wonder how her body works to produce adrenaline, maybe it is always at a 'baseline' level and never rises like it would if presented with a dangerous scenario.
She has trouble recognizing fear in facial expressions, for example.
Psychopaths, and sociopaths are known not to feel any emotions whatsoever... Including fear.
Originally posted by SaturnFX
I wonder how they can conclude she does not feel fear..
Originally posted by Alda1981
Wasn't the pilot Red Baron in WW1 had the same "problem"? He had painted his plane red so all enemies can spot him first and he was rushing into them without fearing anything. Not cause of bravery though but due to brain malfunction.