What Happens in the Brain When We’re Courageous

What neural mechanisms are associated with courage?
A team of researchers led by Yadin Dudai of the Weizmann Institute of Science decided to find out by looking at how people who are scared of snakes respond to them. Volunteers were put in an fMRI scanner and then told to bring a live snake as close to their head as they could. The volunteers could choose whether they brought the snake closer, step by step or—succumbing to their fear—moved it farther away.
Those who acted courageously—moving the snake closer even though they were intensely afraid of it—showed more activity in a part of the brain called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) as their degree of fear went up. Volunteers who gave into their fear and moved the snake away didn’t show the same correlation; activity in the sgACC went down as fear went up. The researchers also found that activity in some temporal lobe structures decreased as the level of fear went up in people who chose to overcome it.
As the researchers explain in their paper:

Our results thus propose an account for brain processes and mechanisms supporting an intriguing aspect of human behavior, i.e., the ability to carry out a voluntary action, namely courage, opposed to an action promoted by ongoing fear. Specifically, our results delineate the importance of maintaining high sgACC activity in successful efforts to overcome ongoing fear. They hence point to the possibility of manipulating sgACC activity in therapeutic intervention in disorders involving a failure to overcome fear. Such interventions may range from training in meditation techniques that lead to greater activity in this region to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) similar to that attempted to alleviate depression.

Category: Neuroscience

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