The risking brain
There seems to be an oversupply of fear these days. We can argue till we are blue whether our fears are warranted or not. Some will say the accessibility to information gives us more reasons to be afraid of many things. Some say that trends point to a world that is better than before. Steven Pinker in his two books, Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, cites powerful facts, among them, much less wars, less murder rates, people living longer than ever before, and that we reasonable humans seem to rise to the occasion when it truly matters.
But for the majority of everyday conversations around the world, none of these quell our fears in permanent ways because fear is more powerful than facts. We are wired to fear far more than we are to be reasonable. But are we all created to be equally fearful?
Being wired for fear means our tendency to fear is strong. It is easier to fear than not to fear. This is one of the most established facts about the brains of animals, including the animals that we, in a constant state of overconfidence and irony, call Homo sapiens ("wise"). This wiring for fear is very useful and has enabled us to survive; it springs us to immediate action (fleeing, fighting, or freezing) in response to our fear. But like many human tendencies which have evolved for thousands of years, they do not necessarily synch with the demands of the human environment – an environment that has changed so much faster than our biology. But our brains are still easily given to fear despite the decrease in the overall threats to our lives as compared to the lives of our ancestors. This results in anxieties and other risky behavior which could lead to even more serious problems in our personal and collective lives.
But what has science found lately about fear? Science has known and has shared with the rest of us what brain networks – groups of cells that communicate with each other – are activated when we fear. What is less known by the lay is that there is also a "hum" – a kind of wave – that brain cells make. There are corresponding "hums" for specific brain functions produced by various brain networks. Scientists found that a certain "hum" can activate a group of brain cells associated with fear to make us take more risks, effectively making us more daring.
The study found that a group of cells in the ventral hippocampus known as oriens-lacunosum moleculare (OLM) and the "hum" they make called Theta2 play a crucial role in our ability to fear and the resulting risk-taking. This group of cells are special neurons called "interneurons" that act as mediators between what we sense and how we will act. The researchers saw this when they manipulated OLM cells to produce Theta2 and produced risk-taking behavior in mice who were made to smell the hair of its nemesis: the cat. They have seen that mice who were stimulated this way moved and explored beyond the borders that the unstimulated mice were not willing to cross. The mice were able to overcome their anxieties, triggered by smelling the hair of their predator. Through all these, the scientists made sure that the mice were still able to smell the cat hair. This means that anxieties that make us freeze and dig a gaping hole that can suck us could be manipulated if we were to base it on what OLM cells exhibited.
In this experiment, the scientists of course had to manipulate the OLMs with light. What was demonstrated was that there were triggers for this "hum" to happen. That makes us think of where the triggers could possibly come from in everyday life. Would encouragement and assurance from the environment – including other people – give rise to a Theta2 "hum" and enable us to take more risks? Could we mass produce a stimulant of a Theta2 "hum" to rouse a sleeping population in slumber or frozen fear? That could be a good premise for a novel, but I think also a reasonable prompt for the current times.
We are not all the same when it comes to what to fear, how much we become afraid, and what we do to deal with it. These differences can be accounted by many things, and one of them is what we were born with – our genes. Scientists could infer our "fearing gene" from our risk-taking behavior and the underlying genes that bear on it. A number of mental conditions exhibit abnormal risk behavior – either too little or too much. A study identified several gene sets associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, and that the effects of some of them may be nuanced depending on the sex of the person. Another study affirmed the role of genetic expression and the external environment on teenage drinking, and found that the external role played the larger role in this kind of behavior among young people.
"Risk-taking" does not just include life-threatening situations but also risks in financial decisions. One study found that two gene variants that regulate serotonin and dopamine, and associated with emotional behavior, anxiety, and addiction do play a significant role in the extent of risks one makes in financial investments. Biology is the last thing you think about when you imagine the floor of the stock exchange, but this study reminds you that that no one can escape biology.
Many, if not most cultures, consider bravery as a virtue. The usual face of bravery is painted against a background riddled with all kinds of risks. While science has uncovered that our biology does play a role in how much we can overcome our fears, it has also shown that we have room to overcome it. We do not have an exact and fool-proof formula yet how, but we know it is possible. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.