Courage is not the absence of fear, but being afraid and facing it; for a 44 year old woman who is referred to “SM” for privacy reasons, that is not an option – she can not feel fear, biologically. Researchers have tried and tried with their best techniques to scare her, but there was absolutely no result.
Haunted houses, monsters, snakes and spiders only managed to make her curious or to entertain her; she suffers from a rarecondition called Urbach–Wiethe disease that has destroyed her amygdala, an almond-shaped structure located deep in the brain that plays a crucial role in generating fear responses in numerous mammals, from rats to humans.
This new study revolved around SM and her she was the first ever to confirm that that part of the brain is actually responsible for generating fear responses in humans.
“This is the first study to systematically investigate the experience or feeling of fear in humans with amygdala damage,” lead author Justin Feinstein told LiveScience.
The study could prove to be extremely important in treating post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), especially for soldiers, but not only for them.
“Their lives are marred by fear, and they are oftentimes unable to even leave their home due to the ever-present feeling of danger,” Feinstein said. In contrast, SM is immune to this stress. “Traumatic events leave no emotional imprint on her brain,” he said.
It has to be said, being fearless has its good points and bad points. Her eldest son (she has three children) in his early 20s recalls this instance: ”
Me and my brothers were playing in the yard and mom was outside sitting on the porch. All of a sudden we see this snake on the road. It was a one lane road, and seriously, it touched from one end of the yard all the way to the other side of the road. I was like, ‘Holy cow, that’s a big snake!’ Well mom just ran over there and picked it up and brought it out of the street, put it in the grass and let it go on its way…”
But that’s only the start of it. She has been held at gun and knife point, physically accosted, threatened by death several times and almost died in an act of domestic violence; her life was on the line on numerous occasions, but she was never convicted of a crime. Of course, studying other patients in the same condition as SM would be extremely useful, but this kind of people are almost impossible to find.
“What stands out most is that, in many of these situations, SM’s life was in danger, yet her behavior lacked any sense of desperation or urgency,” the researchers wrote.