Off the Shelf: The Fear Factor

Over the weekend I read an interesting book – actually I read three interesting books, all of which had to do with psychopaths. Why psychopaths? Go figure. Last week it was UFOs, this week psychopaths, next week maybe pioneers or infectious diseases or weather or management. My mind is a mysterious thing – the reading heart wants what the reading heart wants. By the way, I read somewhere the original of that quote was used by Woodie Allen to justify his sexual relationship with his step-daughter. Ick.

But I digress. The Fear Factor by Abigail Marsh does include psychopaths but it is mostly about altruists, people who would, for example, happily donate a kidney to a stranger or risk their life to save another person. Altruists being the opposite of psychopaths – and the differentiating causes stemming from activity (or lack thereof) in the amygdala. Researchers showed psychopaths, altruists, and control subjects photos of people with different expressions – happy, sad, fearful, angry, etc. – while measuring their brain activity in an fMRI. The amygdalas of all three groups reacted pretty much the same to happy, sad, angry, and etc. but the altruists and the psychopaths reacted differently to the fearful expressions. Altruists had a higher reaction to the fearful photos and psychopaths had no reaction at all to them. None. Separate interviews with the psychopaths explained why: they didn’t recognize the emotion and some even claimed that they had never felt fear, ever.

But back to the altruists. Word frequency analysis of interviews with heroes who had saved strangers by rushing into burning buildings and things like that, revealed that they were very familiar with fear and that they talked about feeling scared, terrified, and fearful the whole time that they were saving people. At the same time, they felt that they had to do it and they didn’t spend much time making the decision to help, they just rushed in and took action.

Why? Marsh makes the case that it’s evolutionary. The face we make when we’re afraid (brows raised, eyes wide, mouth minimized) is similar to a baby’s face with its grown up forehead and eyes, and its tiny baby chin. Since human babies require a lot of care, so much care that one woman almost can’t do it herself (reassurance to any moms beating themselves up for not being perfect), we are hard-wired to want to protect babies in general, animals that look like babies, and adults who look like babies when they make the fear face. (This assumes that we’re not going Mama Grizzly on them for threatening babies in our in-group with their liberal agenda or something.) Some people instinctually overreact to the fear-face by going into a hyper-compassionate mode that causes them to want to save the person expressing fear through the facial expression or through the high-pitched sounds of fear that mimic a child’s cries. If you’re not an altruist now you can become one by meditating on compassion and volunteering a lot.

An interesting theory. An enjoyable read that I recommend (the journey of the book is worth it. But, if it feels like something is missing, I agree. Maybe I missed something because I was reading this under pressure – stuck in an airport for 7 hours, an airport with the A/C cranked to full and I was shivering even through my down vest and scarf. So maybe I missed her point.

How did we get from compassion and heroic impulses brought on by the sight or sound of fear, to people wanting to donate a kidney to people they had never met before, because it felt like a good decision, and a decision that didn’t cause them fear at all, only a sense of rightness?

And how does this tie back to psychopaths, who don’t even recognize fear? If we don’t recognize fear, we lose all regulation of governing behaviors that hold us in check? And for a twisted few that have something else wrong inside their heads, this lack of governance causes them to torture others?

Thought-provoking. I may have to read this again some time when I’m not so tired and distracted and see if the pieces fall more into place.

If you give it a read, let me know what you think.

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