Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

Fear Turns Invisible

Why the greatest danger sometimes stirs the least emotion

As a pilot, and as someone with a personal and professional interest in the emotion of fear, I was delighted to read the following in today’s front-page New York Times story about mayor Michael Bloomberg’s obsession with helicopters:

Back in 1976, when Mr. Bloomberg was training to become a pilot, he nearly encountered disaster as he flew alone off the coast of Connecticut.

“I wasn’t sure what was going on in the engine compartment behind me, but I certainly knew I was falling and couldn’t breathe. I was going down,” he wrote in his autobiography. He landed on an island and ultimately put out the helicopter fire himself.

“Was I scared?” he wrote. “Well, there’d been no time for any emotion when I was in the air, and on the ground I was safe. So the answer is no—unless of course you count the internal shaking I couldn’t stop for the rest of the day.”

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Funnily enough, a very similar story came up at a talk I gave just two days ago at my flying club in Poughkeepsie. I gave a brief presentation about the different kinds of fear that pilots are likely to encounter as a pilot and the mechanisms that underlie each. I said that I imagined that every single pilot has felt intense fear at one time or another, and that that was a good thing. Fear focuses our attention on what’s important and helps us to survive.

After the talk some of the guys shared their experiences. I found it particularly interesting that two of them talked about how they felt after unexpectedly losing engine power in the club’s Cessna 152 and having to make an emergency landing. Those stories brought a lump to my throat because apparently they happened quite recently. Last summer I took that very same plane on a long flight to Indiana and back, a trip of more than 1000 miles all told. I’d always assumed that the chance of losing engine power in a well-maintained, fully certified airplane was essentially zero. There were a few stretches along the way in which an engine-out would have put me in a dire predicament indeed.

At any rate, one of the pilots raised his hands and said that he while he thought there was a lot of sense in the points I’d made about fear, there was one major area where he thought I’d got it wrong: that we all naturally are bound to feel fear at some time or another. He said that he’d had one hair-raising flight that had the potential to go seriously wrong, and he hadn’t felt any fear at all. He just did what he had to do, and then didn’t feel any emotion at all until he was back on the ground.

“And how did you feel then?” I asked.

“Like I was going to keel over,” he said.

Basically, he had had the same kind of emotional response that Mayor Bloomberg had when he started to lose power over the Connecticut coast. Essentially, his fear response kicked in so strongly that it wiped out his sensation of emotion altogether. It was only when he was safely back on the ground, well away from the danger that had threatened him, was he overwhelmed by a flood of feelings.

In researching my book Extreme Fear I encountered many such stories. One of the case-studies I relate, for instance, is the experience of Dave Boon, who survived an avalanche that swept his car off the side of the mountain. He and his wife were severely bruised, but managed to survive without serious injury. At the time the accident was unfolding, he felt no emotion of fear—it was almost like he was watching himself in a movie. It was only, he said, when he went to see his car in the junkyard that the latent flood of emotion was released. “When I saw my car, my legs just buckled. I just sat down in the middle of the parking lot,” he told me. “That's when it set in for me. I thought, holy crap, how did I get out of this?”

Fear can have many different manifestations, depending on the individual and the particulars of the situation. But one of the most helpful things in can do for us is to automatically focus our attention on what’s important, and on doing what we need to do. One aspect of this effect is what’s known as “cognitive tunneling”: everything apart from the relevant peril (a charging bear, a gun aimed at us) becomes invisible. Irrelevant thoughts vanish. Many people facing life-or-death moments report feeling an incredible sense of being focused, alive, aware, and present in the moment.

Another distraction we ignore is pain—we just don’t feel it. And, of course, in many cases we don’t feel fear. It’s not that the emotion isn’t there. It’s just that the primitive part of our brain that has evolved to help us survive in such situations has extraordinary power over what we do and don’t consciously perceive. When we’re totally focused on keeping ourselves alive, the emotional sensation of fear won’t help us, so it gets thrown out.

Only when we’re out of danger, and the ancient fear center switches off, is the censorship removed, and we suddenly feel the effects of all that cortisol and adrenaline coursing through our bloodstream. Another person I talked to for my book was Tucson resident Tom Boyle, Jr. Boyle wasn’t in physical danger himself, but when he witnessed a bicyclist getting hit by and pinned under a car, he raced to the scene and lifted the vehicle high enough that the cyclist was able to get free. The intensity of the situation gave him preternatural focus and strength. But as soon as the victim was taken away in an ambulance, it was as though someone had pulled an electrical cord out of its socket.

Boyle collapsed onto the ground. “Hon,” he said to his wife, “I’ve got to get home. I feel like I’m going to throw up.”

Have you ever experienced intense danger without any accompanying feeling of danger? If so, please share in the comments—I'd love to hear about it.

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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