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December 29, 2010 8:10 AM   Subscribe

Meet the woman without fear. Growing up as a Buddhist, I was taught a lot about fearlessness and conquering fear (previously). But being fearless may not be all it's cracked up to be.

"SM" suffers from an autosomal recessive condition that has severely damaged her amygdala and, with it, her sense of fear. She neither feels fear nor recognizes it in others. She has little recognition of personal bubbles, "happily stand[ing] a foot away from complete strangers, far closer than most people would be comfortable with." This has created some difficulties for SM:
[SM]’s behaviour, time and time again, leads her back to the very situations she should be avoiding, highlighting the indispensable role that the amygdala plays in promoting survival by compelling the organism away from danger. Indeed, it appears that without the amygdala, the evolutionary value of fear is lost.
She has
been held up at knife point and at gun point, she was once physically accosted by a woman twice her size, she was nearly killed in an act of domestic violence, and on more than one occasion she has been explicitly threatened with death.
While excessive fear can be a huge problem for people, let's not forget that fear is a very important adaptive mechanism.
posted by outlandishmarxist (32 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
There's something about this I can't quite follow. I don't feel much fear either, but I know certain circumstances to be unsafe, and I don't go into them. She doesn't just seem fearless, she seems entirely clueless about her personal safety. Is it that her lack of fear includes a lack of fear about her own death, which leads to a lack of concern about her safety?
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:28 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Scary.
posted by ecorrocio at 8:30 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


So she lacks a fight or flight response and has an inability to develop PTSD? Huh, I guess both of those combined translate into what we could colloquially describe as a lack of fear.
posted by Blasdelb at 8:34 AM on December 29, 2010


As a lifelong sufferer of anxiety and phobias, I've often fantasized about what it would be like to be completely fearless. It sounds wonderful, but I'm kind of amazed that she's lived so long in that condition. I'd probably fall off the edge of a cliff within days.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:35 AM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


NEWSFLASH: Woman with brain damage appears to act abnormally.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:40 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am not trying to dismiss the disadvantages that come with brain damage... but as someone with very mild PTSD, I find myself slightly jealous of this woman.

Amazing article, at any rate.
posted by Leta at 8:51 AM on December 29, 2010


I can't help but wonder why the boys in the backroom have not been cooking up something to eliminate or suppress fear in soldiers. Probably somewhere in the wikileak pile.
posted by MrMulan at 8:57 AM on December 29, 2010


It sounds like she has a fundamental lack of caution. It's like a learning disorder, only instead of seeing letters backwards she is unable to comprehend danger. I wonder if she's impulsive with everything (choosing to braid doll hair instead of doing homework, drinking three Four Lokos in one sitting, eating cake for dinner because, you know, why not,) or just in ways that you would normally restrain yourself from behaving on the grounds that you'd get hurt right away. Is it that the bad consequences don't occur to her, or that they have no emotional significance, or what?

I also hope they let her do stuff like tandem skydiving and riding insane rollercoasters. Even if she can't experience much of the thrill (since it stems from knowingly flouting your fear,) she ought to be able to appreciate the bragging rights.
posted by SMPA at 9:00 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Eh - it's not that surprising that this woman doesn't have a great deal of insight into her condition. That's common in all sorts of mental illness. Further, I suspect she isn't tremendously well-educated - the fact she lives in a poorer neighborhod suggests that she's in a lower socioeconomic class. Lack of education and brain damage don't equal a recipe for robust personal insight.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 9:05 AM on December 29, 2010


I'd probably fall off the edge of a cliff within days.

I wonder at what point we'll be able to say, I'd just like to never feel that again, please excise that part of my brain. Or turn it off? The article does say that she is aware of what fear is, and has felt it before the disease stripped out that part of her brain. She describes how people should feel about things in those terms, she just doesn't feel them herself anymore. It'd be neat, risky, lots of different things (and what an impact on philosophy!) to be able to just switch off whatever emotion set you like, click and off we go.

NEWSFLASH: Woman with brain damage appears to act abnormally.

Do better than this.
posted by mhoye at 9:07 AM on December 29, 2010 [7 favorites]


I only mention this because the post phrases it in a Buddhist context, but as I understand Buddhist principles, fearlessness (and hopelessness) is not a goal, but a result of recognizing emptiness. That is, fearlessness as a result of removing the basis for it (the separate self) and removing the capability for the self to fear are different phenomena.
posted by zangpo at 9:11 AM on December 29, 2010 [5 favorites]


Conservatives have larger amygdalas.
posted by Flunkie at 9:15 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of the more objective signs that a meditative practice is working is that one does not react to loud noises as dramatically as one did years ago. This, however, is something entirely different than ignoring threats to one's well-being due to brain damage!
posted by kozad at 9:22 AM on December 29, 2010


I wonder at what point we'll be able to say, I'd just like to never feel that again, please excise that part of my brain. Or turn it off?

There are people who can't feel pain. Like this woman's condition, it doesn't lead to a better life. Though it would be nice to be able to turn off pain at will, especially chronic pain that one can't do anything about.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 9:23 AM on December 29, 2010


People with larger amygdalas have bigger social networks
posted by briank at 9:54 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Guys, guys - it's not the size of your amygdala, it's how you use it!
posted by Dmenet at 9:57 AM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fear is a survival tool that helps keep us alive and recognize when violence is immanent. I wish this woman the best; not being able to sense danger/threats to your personal safety doesn't sound healthy.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 10:30 AM on December 29, 2010


To the people that envy this poor woman, the folks that can feel no pain at all tend to have very short lives.
posted by sammyo at 10:36 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am not trying to dismiss the disadvantages that come with brain damage... but as someone with very mild PTSD, I find myself slightly jealous of this woman.

I'm afraid of just about everything (for no good reason), so I felt a similar twinge of envy when I first saw this article. There's very obvious drawbacks, but still I can't help thinking that it would be nice to be literally fearless for once. Fear is a valuable instinct, sure, but it can be pretty limiting as well.
posted by missix at 10:42 AM on December 29, 2010


Well, that's what I get for not previewing. I stand by my irrationality anyway, not feeling pain and not having fear are notably different..
posted by missix at 10:44 AM on December 29, 2010


Imminent, too.
posted by nevercalm at 10:47 AM on December 29, 2010


I'm not imagining that damaged amygdalas caused by autosomal recessive conditions are what the Buddha had in mind when he spoke about being fearless. Therefore, the conclusion that being fearless is not all that it's cracked up to be doesn't really follow. There's a vast territory between having no boundaries whatsoever because of a genetic condition and not letting fear and anxiety rule one's life.

Mr. Excellent: Further, I suspect she isn't tremendously well-educated - the fact she lives in a poorer neighborhod suggests that she's in a lower socioeconomic class. Lack of education and brain damage don't equal a recipe for robust personal insight.

Wow, terrific unsupported blanket assumptions. Kudos (and eponysterical to boot!).
posted by blucevalo at 11:03 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
posted by Sandor Clegane at 11:04 AM on December 29, 2010 [6 favorites]


Just reading about this terrifies me.
posted by byanyothername at 11:13 AM on December 29, 2010


Is it that her lack of fear includes a lack of fear about her own death, which leads to a lack of concern about her safety?

Perception of situations as "unsafe" is essentially a fear of compromising your well-being. She probably recognizes intellectually that some situations are more likely to compromise her well-being, but without a gut instinctual reaction won't always stop and think for a second before putting herself in those situations.
posted by schroedinger at 11:38 AM on December 29, 2010


I can't help but wonder why the boys in the backroom have not been cooking up something to eliminate or suppress fear in soldiers. Probably somewhere in the wikileak pile.

If the article is anything to go by, fearlessness would make for pretty poor soldiers. They'd get themselves killed charging into ambushes/minefields/IEDs, in areas where a normal soldier would have (rightfully) been more cautious.

Then again, if you combine a lack of fear with some genhancements, mental programming, and a suit of power armor, you've got Space Marines... but I hear the Emperor (may He live forever on His Golden Throne!) is pretty busy these days.
posted by vorfeed at 11:54 AM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I Am Basically Frightened
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:58 PM on December 29, 2010


Thoughtcrime kind of beat me to it, but this article reminded me of this post on the blue. It looks like the linked article has been taken down.
posted by hue at 2:42 PM on December 29, 2010


Astro Zombie: There's something about this I can't quite follow. I don't feel much fear either, but I know certain circumstances to be unsafe, and I don't go into them. She doesn't just seem fearless, she seems entirely clueless about her personal safety. Is it that her lack of fear includes a lack of fear about her own death, which leads to a lack of concern about her safety?

I think this illustrates the extent to which our unconscious minds shape our conscious minds. If the sense of personal safety doesn't come from a deliberate, rational process of decision-making but rather from an unconscious sense of fear that the conscious mind interprets as a sensible assessment of risk and danger, taking away the underlying fear will take away the conscious assessment as well. This comes from the theory of consciousness that sees the conscious mind not as controlling our behaviour directly, but rather as generating a constant stream of post hoc rationalisations for impulses from our unconscious minds. The stream maintains a constant narrative of self that is useful in many ways but is not the core of our being or the ultimate cause of our behaviour.

No links, sorry; I read this in a book years ago and it stuck with me. Anyone know the name of this theory?
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:12 PM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think this illustrates the extent to which our unconscious minds shape our conscious minds. If the sense of personal safety doesn't come from a deliberate, rational process of decision-making but rather from an unconscious sense of fear that the conscious mind interprets as a sensible assessment of risk and danger, taking away the underlying fear will take away the conscious assessment as well. This comes from the theory of consciousness that sees the conscious mind not as controlling our behaviour directly, but rather as generating a constant stream of post hoc rationalisations for impulses from our unconscious minds. The stream maintains a constant narrative of self that is useful in many ways but is not the core of our being or the ultimate cause of our behaviour.

No links, sorry; I read this in a book years ago and it stuck with me. Anyone know the name of this theory?


Sounds similar to what Antonio Damasio was writing about in Descartes' Error, specifically the somatic marker hypothesis.
posted by vorfeed at 4:50 PM on December 29, 2010


This comes from the theory of consciousness that sees the conscious mind not as controlling our behaviour directly, but rather as generating a constant stream of post hoc rationalisations for impulses from our unconscious minds.

At this point, I don't think anyone would take the contrary theory (that all our actions are controlled by conscious thought) all that seriously. Even rational choice theory (the darling of 1970s economists) posits that we unconsciously act in our own interest. But "conscious/unconscious" is a bit of a sloppy conceptual pair, in any case. The brain as an organ is a bit more complex than that.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 8:50 AM on December 30, 2010


Sounds similar to what Antonio Damasio was writing about in Descartes' Error

Damasio is one of the researchers working with this woman.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 8:52 AM on December 30, 2010


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