12/15/2015 0 Comments
The Psychology of Courage
How do you respond to calls of distress? Do you usually respond to them? Would you help someone despite of imminent danger? What was your most courageous experience?
A Story of Courage
Fourteen-year-old James Persyn III made it to the news when he helped a rape victim while looking after his two younger siblings amidst a house fire. That evening, James was left in charge of the house as his father had to pick up his fiancé from work. While watching TV, James suddenly heard a woman’s call for help. She had bruises and packing tape all over her. With quick thinking, James let the woman in, bolted the doors, and switched off the lights. He then took a knife to arm himself and led his sisters and the woman to hide in the bathroom. The woman’s attacker, Eric Ramsey, eventually came to the front door and threatened to kill them if they would not let him in. He then doused the house with gas and lit it on fire. Fortunately, James father was able to get back home in the nick of time. The police responded to the call and tracked down the rapist. Ramsey was then shot and killed.
Despite his age, James showed compassionate courage. He could have just thought of his own safety and ignored the cry for help. He could have just succumbed to fear and reasoned out that letting a stranger in would be too dangerous for him and his siblings. However, he felt for the woman’s plight and decided to do what he could to protect the people around him. Despite the risk, he did what was noble and stayed focused.
Training Our Brains To Be Courageous
What makes us act in bravery or cringe in fear? A study led by Dr. Yadin Dudai of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel looked into neural mechanisms in the event of courage. Through functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), scientists found out that the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex or “sgACC” was stimulated during courageous acts.
Interestingly, the brain region was also positively correlated with subjective fear levels while the snake-fearing-participants were bravely facing a live corn snake. Also, the temporal lobe which is the center for auditory, gustatory, and olfactory senses exhibited a decrease in activity when the participants’ levels of fear as well as courage increased.
The researchers furthered, “we propose a heuristic model wherein in the context of a fear-eliciting situation, goal-directed motivation to overcome fear leads to activation of the sgACC to reduce autonomic arousal and enable a display of courage” (Nili, Goldberg, Weizmann, & Dudai, 2010). In other words, it seems that this area of the brain is kicks in when a person is afraid and needs to do something important. When activated, this area reduces the fear response, allowing the person to act. This is basically what is required in order to display courage. The authors suggested that meditation would be a good way of training this area of the brain.
The world needs people like James. According to Tartandico’s article in Forbes, “courageous leaders are high in demand but short in supply these days” (2013). We need to cultivate precious habits such as leading change, being accountable, confronting reality head-on, taking action on performance issues, and communicating openly and frequently.
We have our own challenges to face, personal fears to vanquish, and loved ones to protect. Without courage, we may regret a number of failures and chances that simply pass by. In Maya Angelou’s words, “Courage is the most important of all virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently”.
Nili, U., Goldberg, H., Weizmann, A. & Dudai, Y. (2010). Fear thou not: Activity of frontal and temporal circuits in moments of real-life courage. Neuron, 66(6), 949-962.
Tartandico, S. (2013). 10 Traits of courageous leaders. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/susantardanico/2013/01/15/10-traits-of-courageous-leaders/
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