Is it Possible to be Devoid of Fear?

Nadine Druar, Staff Writer, Advanced Journalism

Daring or brave people are often described as being “fearless,” but is it possible to be truly devoid of fear?

Fear comes mainly from the Amygdala and the Hypothalamus areas of the brain. The Amygdala interprets emotions, assesses possible threats, and stores your memories of fear. The Hypothalamus is the part of your brain that activates the “fight or flight” response.

A rare genetic disorder called Urbach-Wiethe disease actually prevents one woman from feeling fear. The disease’s symptoms are a hoarse voice, small bumps around the eyes, and calcium deposits in the brain. In this woman’s case, the calcium deposits happened to destroy her Amygdala, taking away her ability to feel fear.

When the woman–known only as SM to protect her identity–was asked what fear was, SM responded with “to be honest, I truly have no idea.”

Researchers tried to provoke a fear response from her with everything from snakes to haunted houses and scary movies.  But SM approached snakes with curiosity, reached out to poke the monsters in haunted houses and was only interested in or entertained by the movies.

“She tends to approach the very things she should be avoiding,” the researchers said.

Even in life-threatening situation, SM feels no fear. She has been held at knife point twice and gunpoint twice as well. She felt no fear.

“I was walking to the store, and I saw this man on a park bench. He said, ‘come here please.’ So I went over to him. I said, ‘What do you need?’ He grabbed me by the shirt, and he held a knife to my throat and told me he was going to cut me. I told him, ‘Go ahead and cut me,’ ” said SM about one of the times she was threatened.

Researchers hope that the findings about SM’s lack of fear and its origins in the Amygdala could one day lead to treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My hope is to expand on this work and search for psychotherapy treatments that selectively target and dampen down hyperactivity in the amygdala of patients with PTSD,” said Justin Feinstein, a student studying clinical neuropsychology at the University of Iowa.

SM is effectively immune to post-traumatic stress disorder and will live with her condition for the rest of her life.

“I wonder what it’s like, you know, to actually be afraid of something,” she said.