How does courage work in your brain? — Dr Christian Heim: Preventative Mental Health – The Global Tofay

How does courage work in your brain? — Dr Christian Heim: Preventative Mental Health - The Global Tofay Global Today

For this post, we will look at how courage works in your brain. The circuitry is there just waiting for you to apply it in your life. This research is exciting. It has not been done on mice or rabbits (because we can’t ask them to make choices) but on vulnerable humans like you and me; humans who fear hurt, injury, judgment and rejection.


I will rely on an important scientific study from 2010. The good news is that we have the evidence on how courage works in the brain, the bad news is that it takes effort from you to apply it in your life, but the better news is that if you learn it and practice it, it gets easier. In this post, we’ll look at the evidence, next post we’ll apply it to your life.


The main study for this information is Nili, Uri, Hagar Goldberg, Abraham Weizman, and Yadin Dudai. “Fear thou not: activity of frontal and temporal circuits in moments of real-life courage.” Neuron 66, no. 6 (2010): 949-962. It’s a snake study. Humans have an innate fear of snakes, and this study was done on humans who need courage just to hear the word ‘snake’ (I exaggerate). The study stands on the shoulders of over 50 years of evidence on one of my favourite parts of the brain, the Orbito-Frontal Cortex (OFC), a decision-making centre. This research highlights the other structures are involved in our decisions.


The OFC is in the frontal lobe and sits in your skull just under your forehead, above your eyes. When you walk into a room, your OFC is the part of your brain that enters first. So in a literal sense, the OFC really is something of a leader; your guide.


Imagine you’re part of this study: you lie down in a functional MRI machine which looks at blood flow inside your brain. You’re staring at a live snake on a movable trolley not too far away. The snake moves; it eyes you off; you eye the snake off. Your task is to force yourself to do what you fear: move it closer and closer to your head. You can push the snake away anytime you want, no hard feelings, experiment over, but you’re asked to be determined. Scientists want to see which parts of your brain are involved in your decisions. As a control group, they use snake-handlers who keep snakes as pets and can sleep with snakes crawling all over them (exaggerating again). They have the same task but will feel less fear.


The results, you ask? There is increased blood flow to two main areas in your brain: the sub-genual anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG) which is deep inside the brain, and the right temporal pole (rTP) which is basically on the right surface on the bottom of the brain. Interesting. Let’s explain what this means.


Before the experiment, we knew that the OFC has large inputs from your frontal lobes and your limbic system, particularly your amygdala. These help you decide what action to take based on your thoughts, values and beliefs (from the pre-frontal cortex of your frontal lobe) and your emotions, arousals and fears (from the limbic system and amygdala).


Your amygdala wants to keep you alive. That’s why it generates fear in danger.

Your frontal lobes’ reason and awareness remind you of what’s going on and what you want.

Your Orbito-frontal cortex (OFC) balances inputs from the frontal lobes and from the amygdala (among many other areas) to make a decision.

Once a decision is made, your OFC will tell your motor cortex (and other areas) what needs to be done through your body.


This study highlighted the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG) and the right temporal pole (rTP). How do these fit in?

The anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG)  generates empathy and considers social situations: what are other people feeling and thinking about this situation? How will they see me? Will they reject or judge me or can I get strength from their approval? It’s the ACG that helps you sign a petition of thousands of protesters because talking to a multi-national corporation as an individual doesn’t seem such a great idea. The ACG helps you be a part of a team of people standing up to a bully when, by yourself, you may decide to walk away: together, we can do it. Your ACG will have you applauding a performance you thought was only so-so, because of the thunderous applause around you: I’ll be part of that. The ACG is the consider-the-people-around-me part of the courage equation.


Together we are stronger. Courage is something we do not only for ourselves, but for others too. It’s for the greater good as well as for benefiting you.


The right temporal pole (rTP) is also involved in social situations. Among other things, the rTP is involved in language, face recognition, processing emotions, and understanding social cues. It’s underactive in people with PTSD (interesting). Together with the ACG, the rTP helps calm the amygdala. Your amygdala incessantly talks to your OFC, but with the ACG and rTP pinning it down and keeping it chill, it stays relatively quiet. With the amygdala pinned down, fear messages to your OFC become quieter, so input from your frontal lobe (values, goals, beliefs and desires) become stronger and more influential. This makes it easier to choose courage even if you feel fearful.


The OFC says hey amygdala, I hear your pain, but this time I’m not going to listen to you. The amygdala, pinned to the floor by the fTP and ACG, is not strong enough to overturn the OFC’s decision. The OFC then sets courageous action into motion or speech through the motor cortex (and basal ganglia and more).


Here’s the equation:


Amygdala + Frontal lobes speak to OFC at the same time 

ACG + rTP pin down the amygdala to keep it chill 

The OFC can now listen to the frontal lobes more 

A decision for courage is more likely because it’s easier =

Courage put into action through the motor cortex to the body.


That’s courage. It’s not the absence of fear. It’s making a courageous choice in the face of fear. It’s giving precedence to what you believe, desire and value. It’s letting others influence you to make the right choice. And it gets better. If you choose courage, it gets eventually gets easier. But if you don’t choose courage, your amygdala feels vindicated in its fear and fear messages gets stronger. That means the ACG and the rTP have to work harder to pin it down the next time and the OFC has a harder job to do.


Choose courage.


So here is an equation we will complete in the next post if you dare choose courage in your life.


Living out Courage = Feeling Fear + Aware of All factors + Choosing Courage.




Dr Christian Heim

#courage #work #brain #Christian #Heim #Preventative #Mental #Health

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