Snakes, spiders, heights, enclosed spaces, or a suspicious-looking character lurking in a dark alley, we all experience fear. But what is fear? For that matter, what is courage? Is it a lack of fear, or an ability to overcome it? Researchers at the University of Iowa, the California Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California are finding answers to these fundamental questions by, in part, studying a test subject with a lesion on her amygdala, a part of the brain. She can be startled or surprised and she knows what danger is in an intellectual sense, but she has no sensation of fear. Neurobiologists have discovered that if they intentionally damage the amygdala of monkeys, they will literally play with snakes instead of staying clear of them. What does this say about our cultural definitions of “coward” or “courage?” And what implications does it have for returning war veterans and others suffering from the crippling fear associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
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