What is fear made of?
In his book Self Comes to Mind, Antonio Demasio describes emotions as complex, largely automated neural programs of action. He writes that emotions can be triggered by real-time events, events of the past, or images related to events. They tap into various brain regions, including the areas concerning language, movement, and reasoning. This in turn sets off a chain of chemical reactions.
Certain kinds of emotions tend to activate specific brain regions, producing a kind of lock and key effect. For instance, situations involving fear unlock the amygdala and triggers additional chemicals associated with fear. Our perceptions of those internal changes are what we call feelings. (When two regions are affected at the same time, it can create a composite or mixed emotion, such as bittersweetness or nostalgia.)
Feelings are the body’s readout of what’s happening internally, combined with your moment-by-moment state of mind. As Damasio says, “Feelings are the consequence of the ultimate emotional process; the composite perception of all that has gone on during emotions—the actions, the ideas, the style with which ideas flow—fast or slow, stuck on an image, or rapidly trading one for another.”
During an emotional state, our rapid body readouts allow us to weigh the likelihood of reward and punishment, all in an attempt to predict what might happen next and what we’ll do about it.
Basic emotions like fear, anger, sadness, and disgust can be understood as a more nuanced approach to the evolutionary choices of fight, flight, or freeze.
Damasio adds that the brain’s emotional process follows the same strategy as our body’s immune system. When a swarm of outside invaders show up, our white blood cells dispatch an equal number of antibodies. These cells lock onto the surface shapes of the trespassers in an attempt to neutralize them.
Similarly, when you find yourself in an alarming situation, the amygdala dispatches commands to the hypothalamus and the brain stem, increasing your heart rate, blood pressure, respiration pattern, gut contraction, blood vessel contraction, cortisol release, and a metabolic ramp down of digestion, culminating in a contraction of the facial muscles we would read as a frightened expression.
In primitive times, depending on the context of the situation, you might freeze in place, where you’d begin to breathe shallowly—important if you’re trying to remain motionless in order to elude a predator. On the other hand, you might make a run for it, resulting in an increased heart rate to drive blood into your legs. And your cognitive resources would be redistributed; interest in things like food or sex would temporarily fall by the wayside.
All of this takes a giant toll on your energy reserves. It’s costly—especially if it turns out to be a false alarm.
Like a dimmer switch, the basic emotions give us graduated options. Instead of entering full-on combat mode when an encounter goes poorly, I may choose to simply show my disgust towards that individual, thereby saving my precious glucose and decreasing the chance of getting knocked on the head.
Damasio suggests that because emotions are unlearned, automated, and predictably stable programs resulting from natural selection and genetic predisposition, you can choose to act bravely, but no amount of stoicism can undo the fear you’re experiencing on a basic physiological level.
This may explain why frequently people who have performed heroic actions shy away from describing themselves as courageous. Although their outward behavior was brave, they remember feeling profound terror.
It’s not a matter of being born with a fearless personality. Firefighters, Navy Seals, and many others undergo intense training to learn how to successfully function through their natural fright. Such is the power of building habits.