How the Bravest Are Different

How the Bravest Are Different

Posted Apr 20, 2010

On Saturday, I wrote a post about how the Swedish explorer S.A. Andree carefully observed his own fear reaction as he made his first ascent in a balloon. Intellectually he felt no trepidation about what he was about to do, yet as the craft began to rise he found himself desperately holding on despite himself. I described feeling similarly overwhelmed by fear myself, on several occasions. But I had no word for the phenomenon.

Well, now I have one. It's called "The Grip."

At least, that's what climbers call it, according to John Dickerson in his rollicking piece on Slate about the climbers Eli Simon and Pete Fasoldt. Dickerson writes:

When I didn't know where to put my hand or foot next, I would feel what climbers call "The Grip" coming on-a mixture of fear and frustration. My muscles would tense and my peripheral vision would turn off. ... On the cliff, I felt fear even though I knew there was a complex system protecting me. The rope I was using was a double rope built to withstand the weight of a school bus.... Even if a deranged killer wanted to dismantle the cams and ropes it would take several minutes of chopping. And there weren't any serial killers around (I'd checked the papers). Still, I was gripped.

Simon and Fasoldt, by comparison, are calm, cool, and collected on the rock. They don't feel The Grip. And why is that, Dickerson asks? Well, part of the reason is that they've spent years on rock walls. They've become habituated to an environment that seems terrifying to most of the rest of us. But more than that, Dickerson argues, their brains are likely wired differently from the rest of us.

As it happens, I've been doing research lately into the neurobiology of men who are extraordinarily brave. The topic is of great interest to the military, which is keen to know why some people are better able to handle the terrors of the battlefield than others. If they can figure that out, they hope to adapt training procedures or devise nutritional supplements to help others achieve similar levels of performance.

Much of the research has been conducted on soldiers undergoing Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training, which is designed to replicate the experience of being lost behind enemy lines and is said to be nearly as stressful as actual combat. Basically, you're left to fend for yourself in the wilderness, then chased, shot at, captured, and tortured. Participants' levels of the stress hormone cortisol are through the roof -- higher, even, than those awaiting life-threatening surgery. The fight-or-flight hormone and neurotransmitter noradrenaline also skyrockets.

So what have researchers found? Well, that the brave are different from you and me. Elite troops like Navy SEALs show different patterns of brain activation when they deal with the stress of SERE. And it's not, as you might expect, that their stress hormones become less elevated. On the contrary, their cortisol and noradrenaline levels shoot much higher than an average soldiers' does. This probably helps them take on the physical and mental demands of the situation. Crucially, once the crisis is past, their hormones quickly return to their baseline levels.

The elite soldiers' brains also responded differently to the surge of hormones when it was occurring. Along with high levels of a chemical called DHEA that seems to mute the more negative aspects of stress, Navy SEALs have elevated concentrations of a neurotransmitter called Neuropeptide Y, which binds to synapses in the frontal cortex and modifies the way it responds to noradrenaline. The effect is likely to prevent some of the undesirable effects of noradrenaline, such as dissociation and cognitive narrowing, while allowing it to keep amping up performance in other parts of the brain. Reports the New Scientist:

Less-resilient individuals, on the other hand, seem to have a lower capacity for NPY production. What is more, their smaller surge of the neurotransmitter during SERE training seems to deplete their reserves, causing NPY levels to drop below baseline for at least 24 hour.

Right now, researchers affiliated with the US Navy are planning experiments to determine whether it will be possible to boost the performance of SERE trainees by giving them nutritional supplements containing neuro-enhancing chemicals. If that works, it's a strategy that we all could easily adopt: DHEA, at least, is widely available in health food stores.

In the meantime, those of us who want to be more brave right now can ponder the lesson of another recent SERE study, which found that soldiers who adopted an active coping style fared better than those who took a passive or emotion-focused approach. In other words, when the going gets tough, you can mimicking the brain activity of the bravest performers by adopting their mindset: look on the bright side and take decisive action.

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