CHAUTAUQUA – Perhaps the secret of courage lies in the preparatory work that one prepares in advance.
“The most effective way to overcome fear with anything is simply to deliberately expose yourself to it in small doses, and gradually increase the threat level, with a professional (counsellor) if necessary, because fear is in some respects a habit”, said Professor Abigail Marsh.
Marsh shared his take on “The Brave Brain” with an audience from the amphitheater of the Chautauqua institution on Monday as part of the theme: “New profiles in Courage.”
She said an example of people overcoming fear by developing good habits is free climber Alex Honnold. She said he was scared, but if he can climb like he does, it’s because he learned not to be scared. He built his record climbs by starting small and getting harder and training hard.
She mentioned how Dave McCartney, then 21 in 2006, helped a woman free herself from a burning car. She also mentioned how Senator Corey Booker was also a heroic rescuer saving a girl from flames in a house fire.
And Marsh recalled one time — when she was 19 on a freeway in Tacoma, Wash. — when she swerved to miss a dog. She said a stranger driving behind her helped her to safety. She never knew his name.
“I regret to this day not having asked” she says. “I’m here today because of this stranger, a man who didn’t carry on.”
His research therefore focuses on why people stop helping others when they can simply move on. She said the origins of fear lie in the amygdala, a structure in the brain of mammals, including humans. She said the amygdala is needed to coordinate the experience of fear when it calculates that something bad is about to happen.
Some people, due to injury or disease, lose the function of their amygdala. She referenced a woman who went by the name SM, and her amygdala had disappeared due to a genetic condition. But, Marsh said, SM lives without fear and she can’t tell when others are afraid. As part of her research, she was taken to Waverly Hills Sanatorium, a very spooky place, during Halloween.
She showed no fear, Marsh said, and ironically scared off one of the so-called monsters trying to scare her.
Marsh noted that people with psychopathy react the same way SM did in the lab – without fear. Psychopathy, she said, is a personality disorder that begins early in life. People with psychopathy are fearless and also cannot tell when others are afraid. And in the findings, she said, those with higher levels of psychopathy have smaller amygdalas.
Marsh said Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.”
Marsh said a hero may be more sensitive to fear, not what drives them to act in response to a victim’s terror. Every hero she’s worked with says he or she responded on instinct.
Having a sense of humility and gratitude helps increase well-being because the focus is on yourself.
“Excessive self-focus is the source of much misery – the rumination that underlies depression and the self-consciousness associated with social anxiety,” she says.
Marsh noted that one should look for experiences that create a sense of awe. By creating a sense of wonder, leads to a little self-experience. It is when, she says, that we are in the presence of something enormous.
“Again, it distracts from yourself, promotes your sense of connection, and because awe-inspiring things like starry skies, cathedrals, and towering forests are quite difficult to grasp intellectually. They open our minds for us help make sense of this overwhelming new information,” she says
According to assembly.chq.org, Marsh is a professor in the Department of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at Georgetown University, where his research aims to answer the questions: How do we understand what other people think and feel? What drives us to help others? What prevents us from hurting them? She is an expert in both courage and fear. Marsh’s research uses functional and structural brain imaging, as well as behavioral, cognitive, genetic and pharmacological techniques and includes more than 90 publications in journals such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature Human Behaviour, American Journal of Psychiatry and JAMA Psychiatry. . Additionally, she is the author of The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. When CBS’ “60 mins” dedicated a fall 2021 segment to the neuroscience of heroism, Marsh’s research was highlighted.
His research has received awards such as the Cozzarelli Prize for Scientific Excellence and Originality from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the S&R Kuno Award for Applied Science for Social Good, and the Richard J. Wyatt Fellowship Award. for Translational Research from the NIMH. She serves on the advisory boards of the National Kidney Donation Organization and 1Day Sooner, and is a co-founder of Psychopathy Is. Marsh earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University and conducted his postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Mental Health. She is the past president of the Society for Social and Affective Neuroscience.