Can you bypass fear to be more entrepreneurial?

Friday 1 February 2019
Ramesha Perera's picture

What do you think of when you think of an entrepreneur? Google tells me they're fearless. But are they or do they process fear differently? Which led me to the question how does fear work in the brain?  And can bypassing fear help make you more entrepreneurial? 

Joseph LeDoux. professor of neuroscience at N.Y.U explains to Freakanomics Stephen Dubner, what’s going on up there.  


DUBNER: So where does fear reside? 


LEDOUX: Well it depends. You have to define what fear is first of all. So fear as usually talked about in terms of the amygdala is simply the ability to detect and respond to danger. As people, we go around in the world and we have fearful experiences all the time, but that’s not the same as simply detecting and responding to danger. So the amygdala is detecting and responding to danger, but higher centers in the neocortex, in my opinion, my theory, are responsible for the actual experience of fear. 


DUBNER: So the amygdala in the brain is kind of an early warning system, or it’s what detects the danger. 


LEDOUX: Correct. 


DUBNER: But it doesn’t generate the sensation of fear, you’re saying? 


LEDOUX: I wouldn’t call it a sensation but the experience of fear. So one way to think about it is: no self, no fear. In other words, if you aren’t personally involved in a situation, then you can’t be afraid of it. You can respond to it, but you can’t be afraid. So if you start asking how far back in evolution does the ability to detect and respond to danger go, you never stop until you get to the beginning of life. Bacteria detect and respond to danger. But — 


DUBNER: They don’t experience fear. 


LEDOUX: Well, how do we know, but I don’t think so. 


DUBNER:I was just talking today to a bacterial friend and he said, “You know what Dubner, it’s funny; I detect danger almost daily. It doesn’t bother me.” So that’s my research, Joseph LeDoux from N.Y.U. 


FINNEGAN: Can I ask — does all fear reside in — all kinds of fear reside in the same place? Like the kind of fear when a bear is chasing you, is that the same fear as when your girlfriend starts scrolling through your phone? Are those same kinds of fear? 


LEDOUX: Well actually there are lots of different kinds of fears. So there’s social fear, predatory fear. There’s fear of an immediately present stimulus, there’s fear about a future stimulus. There are existential fears about the eventuality of death, of the meaningless of life. So fear is a very complicated thing. 


FINNEGAN: What I call being alive. 


LEDOUX: That’s right. So there are 37 words in English alone for different sort of variations and twists on fear. 


DUBNER: So, what’s the mechanism by which the perception of danger is turned into fear in the brain? 


LEDOUX: So the amygdala generates a response in the body. For example you might be freezing in front of a snake. Your heart is beating fast, your brain is now aroused, releasing chemicals, so you start to attend to the environment to see what’s there. So I think there are a number of components that come as a result of all of this that come into the actual experience. One is all this body feedback, another is brain arousal. Another is the retrieval of memories about past dangers. And another is your awareness that you as an individual, you as a person are in that situation and are about to be harmed. 


DUBNER: I’m really curious about something you said about if the danger is not toward you, you don’t experience —. 


LEDOUX: If it’s not about you. 


DUBNER: And it’s funny; it sounds so obvious in retrospect but I never thought about it. A terrible thing could be happening to someone else right next to me —. 


LEDOUX: A lot of my colleagues don’t like this idea either. 


DUBNER: I actually like the idea, it’s just a very powerful and kind of alienating idea because it makes you ask, well, where’s empathy in the brain? 


LEDOUX: Well, so I think all emotions are made pretty much the same way, that you have to integrate a variety of different sources of information, what’s called working memory, which is a product of the more frontal areas of the neocortex where you can do that kind of integration in real time. And it’s a matter of what information working memory is working with as to what you experience. So if you’re looking at the bottle of Poland Spring water. 


DUBNER: That’s gin, actually. 


LEDOUX: Okay, well — I experience it as water. So my experience is mine. I can’t ever be wrong about being afraid or angry. You can tell me, No you weren’t afraid or angry, you’re something else. But my experience is my experience. It’s incorrigible in the moment. 


FINNEGAN: The kind of fear you might feel when you’re watching a horror movie is not the same chemical experience of actually being afraid if something’s happening to you in real life. 


LEDOUX: So we have these things called schema in our brain that are catalogues of all of the kinds of things we know about danger and experiences of threat and harm that we’ve acquired as we go through life from the earliest days. And that information is brought into mind by the presence of a threat. It’s called pattern completion in the mind. So the presence of a snake at your feet and that your heart is beating fast is enough to pattern-complete this whole concept of fear. And you also know in that concept that you know what your responses to fear are, and that biases how you interpret and respond in that situation.