Science Finds Courage In The Human Brain

Illustration for article titled Science Finds Courage In The Human Brain

General George Patton said that "Courage is fear holding on a minute longer." Now scientists may have found a way to stimulate courage, pinpointing the portion of the brain that helps humans conquer their fears.


Snakes - why is it always snakes?

A team of researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, led by Dr. Yadin Dudai took a group of volunteers and separated them into two groups - those afraid of snakes, and those not afraid of snakes.


The only reason science ever needs a group of people who are afraid of something is when they plan on torturing them mercilessly with the object they fear.

In this instance, each volunteer was presented with an adorable toy bear and a harmless but terrifying American corn snake. While scanning their brains using an MRI, the volunteers were given the choice to move either the snake or the bear closer or farther away.

If this were me, I'd be cuddling the toy bear in seconds flat.

But many of the volunteers for this test were made of sterner stuff, and when one overcame their fear and urged the snake forward, their brains reacted.


The researchers noted that when a test subject displayed courage, the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) of their brain lit up like a Christmas tree. Subjects who succumbed to their fear and pushed the snake away didn't show the same activity.

So the scientists have concluded that courage resides in the sgACC. It seems like a logical conclusion, but what can they do with that knowledge? Says Dr. Dudai:

'Specifically, our findings delineate the importance of maintaining high sgACC activity in successful efforts to overcome ongoing fear and point to the possibility of manipulating sgACC activity in therapeutic intervention in disorders involving a failure to overcome fear.'


Yes, science may soon be able to instill courage in humans without the use of rousing speeches or self-sacrificing acts of bravery. Perhaps one day I'll finally be able to make it through a Fatal Frame game without screaming like a little girl.

Scientists discover the secret to the feeling of fear []

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Maybe other studies have shown support for the sgACC being associated with courageous behavior (always associated with risks, and in rational decisions produces fear), but in this case, the results can be explained as the sgACC being involved with increasing fear rather than bravery. Just because someone is acting courageous, doesn't mean that they are not afraid (also, just because someone fills out a questionnaire saying they are not afraid of snakes doesn't mean it is true). If someone is moving a fearful object closer, even if they are consciously choosing to, the brain activity could be signaling an increase in fear.

The sgACC could be saying, "stop moving that scary snake closer to me" and an entirely different part of the brain, not observed, is saying, "that female test subject over there is so hot, she'll be all over me if I act fearless of this snake."

Even if the sgACC activity happens prior to actually moving a snake closer, it could still be interpreted as the mental preparation of increasing risk and fear, and not the neural activity of a courageous choice.

One way to test against the two interpretations would be to observe if there are differences in sgACC activity when the snake is moved closer to the test subject voluntarily versus involuntarily.