Professor Discusses Courage, How To Conquer Fear In Lecture

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

CHAUTAUQUA — The secret to courage may be in the groundwork one lays ahead of time.

“The most effective way to conquer fear with anything is just to deliberately expose yourself to it in small doses, and gradually up the level of threat, with a professional (counselor) if necessary, because fear in some ways is a habit,” said professor Abigail Marsh.

Marsh shared her views on “The Courageous Brain” with a Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater audience Monday as part of the theme: “New Profiles in Courage.”

She said an example of people overcoming fear by building up good habits is free climber Alex Honnold. She said he has been afraid, but the reason he can climb the way he does is because he’s learned when not to fear. He built up to his record breaking climbs by starting small and getting successively more challenging and practicing relentlessly.

She mentioned how Dave McCartney, then 21 in 2006, helped a woman get free from a burning car. She also mentioned how Sen. Corey Booker was also a heroic rescuer by saving a girl from flames in a house fire.

And Marsh recalled a time — when she was 19 traveling on a highway in Tacoma, Wash. — when she swerved to miss a dog. She said a stranger who had been driving behind her, helped her to safety. She never did find out his name.

“I regret to this day that I didn’t ask,” she said. “I’m standing here today because of that stranger, a man who didn’t just keep going.”

So her research focuses on why people stop to help others when they can just move on. She said the origins of fear lie in the amygdala, a structure in the brains of mammals including humans. She said what the amygdala is necessary for is coordinating the experience of fear when it calculates that something bad is about to happen.

Some people, due to injury or disease, lose their function of their amygdala. She referenced a woman who went by the name of S.M., and her amygdala was gone due to a genetic disorder. But, Marsh said, S.M. lives without fear and she can’t tell when others are fearful. As part of research, she was taken to Waverly Hills Sanatorium, a very scary place, during Halloween.

She showed no fear, Marsh said, and ironically scared one of the so-called monsters trying to scare her.

Marsh noted that people with psychopathy respond the way S.M. did in the lab — no fear. Psychopathy, she said, is a personality disorder that starts early in life. People with psychopathy are fearless, and also can’t tell when others are fearful. And in findings, she related, those with higher levels of psychopathy have smaller amygdalas.

Marsh said Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.”

Marsh said a hero may be more sensitive to fear and not what moves them into action in response to a victim’s terror. Every hero that she has worked with says that he or she responded on instinct.

Having a sense of humility and gratitude help increase well-being because the focus is pulled from oneself.

“Excessive self-focus is at the root of a lot of misery — the rumination that underlies depression and the self-consciousness associated with social anxiety,” she said.

Marsh noted that one should seek out experiences that create a sense of awe. By creating a sense of awe, leads to a small self experience. It’s when, she said, that one is in the presence of something enormous.

“Again, it pulls the focus away from yourself, promotes your sense of connectedness and because awe-inspiring things like starry skies and cathedrals and towering forests are sort of hard to grasp intellectually. They open up our minds to help us kind of make sense of this new overwhelming information,” she said

According to assembly.chq.org, Marsh is a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown University, where her research is aimed at answering the questions: How do we understand what others think and feel? What drives us to help other people? What prevents us from harming them? She is an expert on both courage and fear. Marsh’s research uses functional and structural brain imaging, as well as behavioral, cognitive, genetic, and pharmacological techniques and comprises over 90 publications in journals that include Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature Human Behaviour, American Journal of Psychiatry, and JAMA Psychiatry. Additionally, she is the author of The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR and The Chronicle of Higher Education. When CBS’ “60 Minutes” dedicated a fall 2021 segment to the neuroscience of heroism, Marsh’s research was prominently featured.

Her research has received awards that include the Cozzarelli Prize for scientific excellence and originality from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, The S&R Kuno Award for Applied Science for the Social Good, and the Richard J. Wyatt Fellowship award for translational research from the NIMH. She serves on the advisory boards of the National Kidney Donation Organization and 1Day Sooner, and is the co-founder of Psychopathy Is. Marsh received her Ph.D. from Harvard University and conducted her post-doctoral research at the National Institute of Mental Health. She is the past-President of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Society.


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