Neuroscientist Marsh opens week with fundamental biology of courage


Abigail Marsh opened Week Eight’s theme, “New Profiles in Courage,” with the fundamentals of courage. Marsh’s lecture was the first after last Friday’s attack on Salman Rushdie and Henry Reese in the Amphitheater just prior to the 10:45 a.m. lecture.

Before Marsh gave her lecture, “The Courageous Brain,” on Monday in the Amp, Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill introduced the week’s theme. He said that Chautauqua’s summer season themes seek to answer the questions: “What are the most important and interesting conversations of our time? And what obligations do we have to humanity to propel positive action from what we learn?”

These themes take careful planning. 

“We conceive these themes sometimes well more than a year in advance of the day they come to Chautauqua stages, and this week’s theme is no exception,” Hill said. “What is also no exception is that our theme this week, given what we experienced on Friday, Aug. 12, on this very stage, seems prescient. This community proves the thesis. There’s nothing more important, more needed today in our world, than courage.”

“New Profiles in Courage” comes in collaboration with Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Walker found the need to explore the idea of courage when he looked around the world for courageous leaders and found there was little incentive to be courageous. 

“When we look for courage, we must start as a community and you all know this, you saw this: Courage is often not exhibited by the most prominent members, the most famous members of those communities, the wealthiest, with the most status, but often from those everyday, hardcore, dedicated, determined, citizens of a community,” Walker said. “… This week is about looking across disciplines, in politics, in the arts, and in the private sector, to ask ourselves: Where might we find the courage?”

Marsh, a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown University and the author of The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between, looks at courage through the scientific lens. In her research she uses functional and structural brain imaging — and behavioral, cognitive, genetic, and pharmacological techniques. 

“The research I’ve done has done nothing but reinforce my belief and the great capacity for goodness that the vast majority of people have — a fact that I think was only reinforced by the incredible courage that was displayed here on Friday by Mr. Rushdie and by so many of the Chautauqua staff and guests,” Marsh said. 

Marsh shared the story of Dave McCartney who, in 2006, witnessed a car accident in front of him and rose to the occasion, helping save the driver as their vehicle became engulfed in flames.

 “He took a course of action that put him in serious danger of being hurt or killed for no personal gain,” Marsh said. “That is a hard choice to explain, understand, for anyone who believes … that humans are fundamentally selfish, that all of our behavior is motivated by our own self interest.”

Abigail Marsh speaks during the morning lecture Monday morning August 15 in the Amphitheater. SEAN SMITH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

She quoted U.S. Senator Cory Booker, whom she described as a heroic rescuer: 

“Just driving in our car, most of us have problems and challenges and the question is, are you going to be someone who just keeps going?” 

Booker’s words resonate with Marsh, as during her own car accident, she was helped by an onlooker. 

“I survived. I’m standing here today because that stranger didn’t just keep going,” Marsh said. “What I’ve been trying to understand, more or less since then, is what made that man stop? What makes any of us change course from whatever road we’re heading down to help others instead of just keeping going?”

The definition of courage is the mental strength to persevere and withstand danger, difficulty or fear. Marsh asked if courage is the ability to overcome fear, or the inability to feel fear.

“Which one of these traits really makes heroes? Are they somehow better at overcoming fear than most people? And if so, how do they do that? Or are they just not affected by fear?” Marsh said. 

Booker is a great example of this, said Marsh, and shared a story of Booker running into a burning building to save his neighbor’s daughter. People took this as ultimate fearlessness. 

“Any of us can be a hero, because fearlessness is really easy to recreate in a lab. Any reasonably capable lab tech can make any of us fearless, and maybe heroes, instantly and we know it’s based on decades of research on the origins of fear,” Marsh said. “In mammals, including humans, the origins of fear lie this treasure called the amygdala.”

In the brain, the amygdala triggers the fear response in the body and is responsible for recognizing fear in others. The amygdala causes the freeze, as well as the fight or flight responses,  to threats in a matter of milliseconds. Marsh said she felt this once as she read on a porch and a bear walked toward her. Without even realizing it, Marsh yelled and ran toward the bear while she was trying to get to safety. This response was a function of the amygdala.

“People often find themselves responding to threats without even fully realizing what they’re doing, thanks to this incredibly sophisticated network within the amygdala,” Marsh said.

Marsh showcased its functions through videos of rats, one with a functioning amygdala and one without. The rats were subjected to the threat of a predator standing between them and their food. This study showed that the rat with an amygdala showed a fear response, while the rat without an amygdala did not. 

This phenomenon can be seen in the medical case Patient SM, a woman who lost her amygdala due to a rare genetic disorder. Patient SM does not feel fear. During a study, researchers would show her a picture before mildly electrocuting her. Though the shocks hurt and she didn’t like them, she did not fear them happening.

“This sounds a little great.  Who would like to go through life like this? But as it turns out, fear is a really useful emotion. … You might not be surprised to hear that Patient SM does have a lot of challenges in her life — in part because she’s just not motivated to avoid danger,”  Marsh said. “… Her behavior fits the definition of courage according to the dictionary, but seems to be missing something. Courage is something we think of as admirable and virtuous, but as this isn’t quite that. She’s just reckless.”

Marsh sees similar behavior in people with a more common disorder, psychopathy, which is connected to a malfunctioning amygdala.

“Having worked with adolescents and adults with psychopathy for over a decade now, I can tell you they are much more likely to be anti-heroes, to put other people in danger by exploiting or attacking them, and then to act courageously to benefit other people at some cost to themselves,” Marsh said, “which is a huge problem for our hopes that the secret to courage is just eliminating fear. Natural experiments that reduce or eliminate fear do not result in heroism, but in recklessness at best and cruelty and callousness at worst.”

Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it; courage is a virtue, as it’s being fully aware of the danger you’re facing while trying to achieve a goal that is more important, said Marsh. Booker felt fear while saving his neighbor’s daughter from the fire, but that did not stop him from acting. 

“In terrifying situations, people who act heroically often feel terrified. What distinguishes them from everybody else is not how they feel. It’s what they do. They move toward the source of the danger, rather than away from it, because somebody else is in danger,” Marsh said. “That is a huge leap in understanding the origins of real courage.”

Patient SM could not tell when someone felt fear or what situations would cause fear due to her lack of an amygdala. This blindness to fear helped Marsh understand what could increase courage in others. 

“People who don’t recognize that threats cause fear think it’s more morally acceptable to make threats,” Marsh said. “… We’ve done lots of brain imaging research in adults and children who have psychopathic traits, and we consistently find that those with higher levels of psychopathy have smaller amygdalas.”

This discovery led Marsh to see if the amygdala had direct correlation to someone’s courage.

“It may be that heroes are more sensitive to fear and that’s what moves them to act,” Marsh said. “… It turns out, that is exactly the case.”

Marsh and her colleagues looked at what she called “altruistic kidney donors” who underwent surgery for someone they had not met before. They compared 20 altruistic kidney donors and 20 typical adults and found that the former are more responsive to people’s fear and can recognize others’ fear better than the typical person. 

“We brought three winners of the Carnegie Medal for Heroism to Georgetown to scan their brains as part of an episode of ‘60 Minutes,’ and all of these heroes had saved the life of someone else, at significant risk,” Marsh said. 

They ran the same tests from the kidney donors and found that those heroes, on average, have bigger amygdalas than typical adults.

 “Heroes are not less sensitive to risk and danger than the average person. They’re more sensitive to it because their empathy for other people’s fear moves them to help,” Marsh said. “This is not the end of the story. It can’t be the entire explanation, because plenty of people have less fear systems and the capacity for empathy, but they’re not particularly courageous.”

The best way to overcome fear is through learning and deliberately exposing yourself to fear in small doses, Marsh said. Alex Honnold, a rock climber who ascends mountains without the use of ropes, has a normal amygdala and does feel fear, but because of his exposure to rock climbing he has the ability to stay calm during it.

“Fear is really important for developing courage in certain situations. … You often find out that real life heroes have some kind of prototyping that taught them to act — they were in the military, or they were lifeguards, or even firefighters,” Marsh said. 

Marsh studied a personality test of 500 adults, 200 who were categorized as typical adults and 300 who were categorized as heroes. In this test, it was found that the adults are mostly similar besides two traits: honesty and humility. 

“We found that humility was correlated with another outcome called social discounting. In a social discounting task, people have the option of keeping some amount of real resources, like money, for themselves, or sharing with somebody else at a cost to themselves,” Marsh said. “Most people will share to benefit people who are close to them, but their choices become … less generous the more distant the beneficiary.” 

This led researchers to believe that people who are heroic and have courageous traits actually value other people more than the typical adult. They often do not see that they are not any more special than the other person, Marsh said. Psychologists say one of the few ways to increase humility is through gratitude exercises, much like how fear exercises can increase courage. 

“There are a few better cures for self focus than to think about all the ways you’ve benefited from other people’s help,” Marsh said “… It does reduce a person’s sense of self-importance, relative to others, and heightens your sense of connectedness to all the people around you to think of yourself as part of this larger fabric of helping.”

This practice can reduce depression and social anxiety, as it takes your attention off yourself, said Marsh. The best way to encourage courageousness is to face fear.

“The contemplative and profoundly moving acts of the many heroes around us — and so many people are heroes in the background — can also inspire a sense of awe, and humility and gratitude,” Marsh said. “It certainly has for me, and I hope it has for you as well.”

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The author Cassidey Kavathas

Cassidey Kavathas, a Buffalo native, is a rising junior journalism student at St. Bonaventure University. This is her first summer at the Daily. She is covering Advancement, Institution administration, the board of trustees, the CPOA and dance. She serves as editor-in-chief at her college’s newspaper, as well as news director at her college’s radio station. Cassidey has previously reported for PolitiFact NY, The Olean Times Herald, TAPInto Greater Olean and St. Bonaventure University’s advancements office.