Courage is loosely defined as the ability to confront fear, pain, risk, intimidation, or uncertainty.
There are also moments that call for acts of courageousness, like the firefighter who runs into a burning building to check for trapped people, or a teenager with moral courage, who chooses not to go along with a group of friends who are planning to rob a convenience store.
Basically, some of us have it, and the rest of us wish we had more (see picture).
Can you tap into your courage center?
According to new research, published in the June issue of Neuron, yes, you may be able to access and increase your courage center, since the scientists involved in this experiment have located that spot in the brain.
The courage center of the brain was found by an experiment dealing with two extremes: live snakes (the fear factor) and toy teddy bears (the control).
About 60 people volunteered for the study, which hoped to use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanning technology to see where the brain lit up when courage was summoned in a given situation.
One group was composed of 40 people who were found to have a serious, debilitating fear of snakes. From here on, we will refer to them as the Fear group. (To determine this group, all of the possible participants had to take a questionnaire that graded their fear level.)
The second group was composed of 20 people who handled snakes on a regular basis and had absolutely no fear of the animal. We will refer to those as the No Fear group.
Step One: Teddy Bears…
Participants, laying down under an fMRI scanner, saw either a LIVE snake or cuddly teddy bear on a conveyor belt with a series of steps. The end of the conveyor belt was near the participant’s head.
The subjects either chose “Advance” or “Retreat” options on a button, and when the choice was selected, the snake or teddy bear moved down to the next step or farther away from the participant.
Unsurprisingly, no one was afraid of the teddy bear.
A side note, those in the No Fear group chose “Advance” for the snake to come closer just as quickly as they chose “Advance” for the teddy bear to move closer. So to them, the snake had the same result as the teddy bear.
So for the control group, no courage was needed for the participants to move either object closer.
Step Two: Those in the Fear group were shown SNAKES!!!
All the participants were aware that the goal was to bring each object as close to their heads as possible (even if it was necessary to summon all the courage you felt you had), so some were able to bring the snake closer, but a larger percent of this group chose “Retreat” to move the snake away.
After each button selection, the participants were asked to report their fear level on a scale of 0-100. Those in the Fear group reported, on average, a 62 score of fearing the snake.
In addition to the after-selection question, the participants were also monitored with a brain scan and also a SCR, or skin conductance response (layman’s terms for sweating when nervous).
The after-selection questions helped to determine how much courage the participants summoned in order to bring the snake a step closer.
The researchers asked:
“To what extent did you try to overcome the fear?” and “Did you need to make a larger effort to overcome your fear as [the snake got closer]?”
The average answer to both was a 4 on a 0-5 scale, indicating that not only did the Fear group participants recognize their mounting fear; only some were able to force themselves to overcome their fear and press the button to bring the snake closer.
The Courage Center
The activity in their brain, according to the fMRI results, showed a significant difference when the participants chose to bring the snake closer or not.
It turns out that there was a part of the brain that lit up when people showed courage (moving the live snake closer to them even when they were scared), as opposed to choosing for the live snake NOT to come closer (the people who did not show courage).
This part of the brain is located in the sgACC, or subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, which is responsible for fear, emotion, stress, perception, and a variety of other tasks.
And the cool thing is that when you show courage it is activated, and when you wimp out it is not!
To me, a surprising part of this study is where the courage center is located. In other articles, we have discussed the role of the amygdala and how it controls the fight-or-flight response humans feel when threatened.
It would seem as if the amygdala would be at work here, forcing the human to stay, and fight, instead of run away, in a situation where more courage is needed.
This article indicates that the sgACC (when activated) is actually able to cancel out some of the fear activated by the amydgdala. So you can see courage trumping fear in the brain – what a system!!
What is more interesting, if you recall a post from last week, which said that your brain makes a choice 6-7 seconds before you’re aware of it, is that the activity in the sgACC of the Fear group started to rise 6 seconds before participants chose the “Advance” option for the snake to move closer.
So, they chose to act courageously before consciously making the decision to do so.
Can we bottle this courage?
Unfortunately, we will probably have to wait a few years before scientists figure out how to create and bottle synthetic forms of liquid courage that we can drink before situations that require bravery.
More realistically, scientists will continue their research to discover how to exploit this area, and to call it up in a necessary moment.
Research on depression has actually shown that Deep Brain Stimulation (a surgical treatment involving the implantation of a medical device called a brain pacemaker, which sends electrical impulses to specific parts of the brain), on the saACC has shown a therapeutic result.
So maybe all the lion needs is a little Deep Brain Stimulation!!
Nili, Uri. “Fear Thou Not: Activity of Frontal and Temporal Circuits in Moments of Real-Life Courage.” Neuron 66. June 24, 2010: 949-962.