All your dreams are on the other side of fear; now neuroscience shows why delight can be too.

The presentation went great! The guy at the gym said yes! The plane landed safely.

Think of anytime you were afraid of a bad outcome and yet things worked out well. What a great feeling! It’s that kind of happiness and joy that is the reward for courageous behavior. Finding courage is what leads to true freedom, liberty and happiness. Now it turns out the fear and the reward are connected, and the reward for being courageous actually is the same place fear starts.

That no-bad-outcome happiness has a neuroscience explanation. Our brains are prediction engines. In my book Fear is Fuel (Rowman & Littlefield Publish date Feb 3, 2020) I explain the Free Energy Principle (FEP) which is a model of how the brain works. You can think of all our experiences as creating a database that we use to predict outcomes. When something scary goes into our database that memory is stored in what is called an engram cell. It’s a emotional memory, and changing the emotional memory associated with a scary event was thought to be completely separate from the area of our brain that was responsible for fear, the amygdala. Scientists at MIT just proved that’s actually not the case. They looked at what’s called “fear extinction” or replacing emotions associated with events and watched areas of mice brains as they went through the research.

Fear extinction allows an original scary memory to be overwritten by a new emotional memory that isn’t fearful. In the MIT study mice were zapped enough to scare them, but not hurt them, in a specific cage. The shock caused them to freeze because they formed a fearful memory and reacted. However the next day, when the mice were put back in the same cage without any further shocks, the freezing response gradually dissipated. This is fear extinction training.

Researchers wondered whether the fearful memory is lost or just over-written by forming a new memory with the fear extinction training.
The MIT scientists used technology (only recently created there at the Picower institute) to watch the neurons of the mouse while they underwent fear extinction training. Researchers could see different neural populations in a specific part of the amygdala. They saw that what are called Ppp1r1b cells were more active and Rspo2 cells were less active in mice that experienced fear extinction. They also saw that while Rspo2 cells were mostly activated by the shocks and were inhibited during fear extinction, Ppp1r1b cells were mostly active during extinction memory training and retrieval, but were inhibited during the shocks. Separate cells for separate memories. What this means is the amygdala plays a role in both reward and fear – and that the reward cells can actually help eliminate fearful memories but shutting off the other cells communication. This research helps us better understand how to treat issues like PTSD or anxiety in the future because knowing what cells are active means doctors no know what cells to target.

The bottom line is also now that you know getting on a plane and flying across the pond resulted in an amazing trip, with lots of new experiences means your feeling of happiness and pleasant surprise can help override the fear you have of flying. So bottom line be courageous even if you are afraid and when everything works out – like it does 99.9% of the time, you’ll be even happier that you faced your fear and used it as fuel.

Check out the pre-order contest for the book here! Win a chance to have an adventure weekend with me, ride a bike 1-on1 with Lance Armstrong or get one of five New York Times best-selling books signed by the authors!


Check out more articles about using using Fear as your Fuel here. 

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