The brain behind the lion heart

I’ve just read a completely fascinating New York Times article on the neuropsychology of courage – a core human attribute that curiously seems to be largely ignored by cognitive science.

The piece looks at how we define courage, it’s relation to fear and the sometimes wonderfully innovative research that has tackled the area.

In pioneering work from 1970s and beyond, Stanley J. Rachman of the University of British Columbia and others studied the physiology and behavior of paratroopers as they prepared for their first parachute jump.

The work revealed three basic groups: the preternaturally fearless, who displayed scant signs of the racing heart, sweaty palms, spike in blood pressure and other fight-or-flight responses associated with ordinary fear, and who jumped without hesitation; the handwringers, whose powerful fear response at the critical moment kept them from jumping; and finally, the ones who reacted physiologically like the handwringers but who acted like the fearless leapers, and, down the hatch.

These last Dr. Rachman deemed courageous, defining courage as “behavioral approach in spite of the experience of fear.” By that expansive definition, courage becomes democratized and demilitarized, the property of any wallflower who manages to give the convention speech, or the math phobe who decides to take calculus.

It is also a wonderfully written article, by the way, so well worth making the leap for.

Link to NYT article ‘Searching for the Source of a Fountain of Courage’.

One thought on “The brain behind the lion heart”

  1. Hi!

    Courage is not complete absence of fear; it’s mastery of fear. I don’t remember exactly the words of Mark Twain used to point this out, but the conclusions drawn from the study your quoting are validating this statement.


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