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Woman With No Fear Intrigues Scientists (livescience.com)
69 points by arondeparon on Dec 17, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments

Fearlessness is a trait of psychopaths. It appears that the amygdala is dysfunctional in psychopaths :

" the amygdala is crucial for stimulus–reinforcement learning and responding to emotional expressions, particularly fearful expressions that, as reinforcers, are important initiators of stimulus–reinforcement learning. Moreover, the amygdala is involved in the formation of both stimulus–punishment and stimulus–reward associations. Individuals with psychopathy show impairment in stimulus–reinforcement learning (whether punishment or reward based) and responding to fearful and sad expressions. It is argued that this impairment drives much of the syndrome of psychopathy. Stimulus–reinforcement learning is crucial for socialization, for learning that some things are bad to do, and individuals with psychopathy fail to take advantage of standard socialization techniques."


While one may want to be fearless or without the ability to feel pain, they are essential emotions and sensations. The lack of either can be life threatening.

Its common among those who cannot feel pain to have bitten of their tongue or crushed their own teeth or jaw bone. Inability to feel pain is often accompanied by inability to sense temperature. People afflicted by this disease rarely live beyond their 20s. The reason being that they cannot monitor and correct for their bodies inner core temperature. The run a way fever or hypothermia turns fatal.

Pain, yes. Fear, debatable.

Fear plays a role in helping people to assess danger, and in making decisions related to your survival and well being. Neither of these things require a fear response though. The article mentions that the woman might have found herself in dangerous situations more often due to her inability to fear, but at best this means that fear might be a useful addition to our ability to assess danger.

It seems to me that the vast majority of situations that are dangerous are either a) obviously so, or b) the opposite. In obviously dangerous situations, you should be able to pick up on the danger by common sense and act accordingly (I don't feel fear every time I cross the street, but I also don't step out in front of cars). In situations where the danger element is very hidden away, it's unlikely you'd get a fear response anyway, since your intuition is only as good as its input.

That leaves a third category, that for which the danger is non-obvious, but fear gives us an evolved intuitive-response to be wary. My argument would be that this is a small and constantly shrinking class of situations, because the environment most of us find ourselves in is so strikingly different than the one in which we evolved. You might have an evolved, intuitive fear response to the sound of a lion's roar, but this does no good whatsoever for most people in the world. So most of the dangerous situations we actually encounter, we deal with using reason and learned behavior rather than fear instinct.

That's my stance anyway. The only area in which I can see a concrete use for fear is its ability to stimulate a very quick flight reaction in certain dangerous situations. That is, things that you need to react to before you have time to think them through. Again, less common in the modern western world, but it does put at least one point in the pro-fear column.

The adrenaline rush or the lack of could make a difference between life and death. I am thinking of heart attacks, modern western world notwithstanding. But I am not familiar the inner mechanics enough to claim that fear is a requisite for an adrenalin response. Some define fear as that hormonal response itself though.

Even with regards to perception of danger, one's reaction, involvement and urgency can be quite different when it is accompanied by fear and when it is not. This of course does not always work in one's favor. So you have instances of "petrified with fear". But is it beneficial more often than not ? My gut feeling is yes.

To add to you example of crossing a street: one can be rational about crossing streets. But when you suddenly realize you are about to be hit by a stray car, you do not have sufficient time to reason about relative velocities, trajectories and models of a driver's behavior. You just jump, hopefully out of the way, in fear/reflex.

But I agree that our fear responses have lagged behind in relevance, with respect to our changing world. But that is true even with other biological preferences. Say with our preference for fatty food. Evolution is after all a high latency process.

I believe personnel in hazardous situations are trained not to be insensitive to fear but to be choosy about what to fear and to react rationally to it....atleast in theory.

Fear isn't required for an adrenalin response. I accidentally shocked myself with household 120V AC once (the back of my hand brushed up against a live exposed wire). My hand jerked away by reflex before I was even aware anything had happened. I did not experience any fear because the danger was already past before I was even aware there was any danger. I did, however, experience a strong adrenaline response immediately afterward. Granted, this is only anecdotal evidence, but it does suggest that adrenaline response without fear is possible even though it is generally the case that they occur concurrently.

I think you underestimate how often fear comes into play. I recently was at the park with some kids and I noticed a couple of dogs playing... I then realized they were pitbulls. Maybe perfectly nice dogs, but my fear factor jumped through the roof and I quickly, but quietly gathered up all the kids.

Now fear isn't something that kicks in often, but when it does it usually means you're in pretty grave danger. Not properly reacting to potentially life threatening situations, just once a year, likely greatly shortens your expected lifespan.

Pitbulls are not vicious child eaters by their nature. They are called nanny dogs for a reason. May be just the people I am around - but I have yet to see a Pit that is anything beyond sweet, loving and awesome.

Now puddles - those are a kind of beast I would never trust to act decently around my kids.

If you read what I wrote, I said, "Maybe pefectly nice dogs". With mine and other peoples kids I really didn't want to find out, especially since their owner was nowhere in sight.

And we've had several incidents of pitbull attacks in this area. Here's a useful site: http://www.dogsbite.org/dangerous-dogs.htm

Last thing I'd want to tell a parent is, "You child was attacked... sure I saw the pitbulls, but I just assumed they were friendly, I mean, JanezStupar has never seen a vicious one before".

I apologize, but to me you came over like you haven't seen a nice one before :).

I might do the same in your shoes. But the fact remains that pitbull is no more dangerous inherently than your average mutt. Probably less so. Yes when they go wrong they tend to cause a bigger mess - but so does Porsche or Ferrari. But we don't go around banning the dangerous car.

Well causing a bigger mess is kind of a big deal. If a toy poodle attacks me I can likely win. Against a pitbull, I don't like my odds.

And there are a LOT more pitbull fatalaties than your average mutt. See http://www.dogsbite.org/bite-fatalities-2010.htm

I can see now what I did there, I'm not a native speaker so formulating complex ideas is still pretty hard for me in english.

It was wrong of me to say that Pits are less dangerous than your average mutt - because that is clearly not the case, since your average mutt is NOT 100 LBS of muscle and determination.

I should of said that pits are (inherently) less likely to attack humans than your average mutt - meaning they take "encouragement" (read training) towards human agression.

Have any evidence beyond hunches to back up this theory?

So are you saying that the idea that pitbulls type dogs are the most dangerous kind of dog is bullshit? The statistics don't agree with your personal experience.

Correlation now counts as causation on HNews?

Pitbulls greatest asset and its ultimate downfall is its wonderful toned muscular body and its iron will. Thats why they get picked up by assholes who tend to abuse them and train them to attack humans. Its the owners that are problem not the dogs. These guys could make any kind of animal into a "vicious killer".

The pit is anecdotally the worst breed for guard dog. They tend to be that friendly towards humans. You have to remember that these dogs were indeed bred for fighting. Dogs not humans. So they were heavily bred to be friendly towards humans - how else can one control a powerful beast if it won't obey you and let you tend its wounds?

They are so protective of children that you can easily let one babysit your kid while you're away.

Condemning the breed because of their retarded owners is like condemning whole minorities because of gang members.

I'm sorry but given the choice between your personal hunches/anecdotes/biases and published statistics I'm going with the latter:

    Year	Total	# Most fatal attacks by	       # Second-most fatal attacks by
    2005	29	Pit bull-type (18) (62%)	Rottweiler (6) (21%)
    2006	29	Pit bull-type (15) (52%)	Rottweiler (8) (27%)
    2007	34	Pit bull-type (18) (53%)	Rottweiler (4) (12%)
    2008	23	Pit bull-type (15) (65%)	Husky (3) (13%)
    2009	30	Pit bull-type (14) (47%)	Rottweiler (4) (13%)
    2010	32	Pit bull-type (22) (69%)	Rottweiler (3) (9%)

The vast majority of these deaths were <10 year olds.

> The pit is anecdotally the worst breed for guard dog. They tend to be that friendly towards humans. You have to remember that these dogs were indeed bred for fighting. Dogs not humans. So they were heavily bred to be friendly towards humans - how else can one control a powerful beast if it won't obey you and let you tend its wounds?

Yeah right that's why they are the #1 human killer dogs with a spectacular margin.

> They are so protective of children that you can easily let one babysit your kid while you're away.

shudder until your 3 year old accidentally hits the pitbull on the nose.

Do you happen to own a pitbull?

Had I owned one - I'd have already disclosed it. I'd love to raise a pit - it's just that currently I'm in no position to own such a demanding animal. However I love to hang around people who do own them.

As far as statistics go - there pretty skewed: http://animals.change.org/blog/view/are_dog_bite_statistics_... - yes thats a blog post - but I couldn't be bothered to perform a more thorough research, I'm sorry.

I agree that pitbull attacks will result in more damage and are more prone to kill somebody. But thats not because there evil or go crazy, its because when you mistreat a poodle - you get a minor annoyance, but when you mistreat a pit - you get a 100 pound of muscle and bones bomb ticking to go off.

> shudder until your 3 year old accidentally hits the pitbull on the nose.

Pits not reacting to a 3 year old punching them is exactly the reason they are so good with kids. Pits pain threshold is so high they don't mind kids being abusive towards them (lets face it thats what kids do to animals).

I guess that asshats will keep mistreating their dogs and enjoying in making them vicious and that something has to be done. But banning the dog is the wrong thing to do. Dangerous dog handlers license or/and personality screen of owners is the correct way to go IMHO.

That blog post contains no evidence for anything whatsoever, again it's just a bunch of hunches and biases. It is also not relevant to the statistics I posted, their central claim is:

> an incident could be anything from an accidental and playful scratch or nip to a full-blown attack by a poorly-trained, aggressive dog.

But the statistics I posted ARE KILLINGS.

> I agree that pitbull attacks will result in more damage and are more prone to kill somebody. But thats not because there evil or go crazy, its because when you mistreat a poodle - you get a minor annoyance, but when you mistreat a pit - you get a 100 pound of muscle and bones bomb ticking to go off.

And again zero evidence to back up this claim. There is evidence to the contrary however: there are plenty of dogs that are bigger than pitbulls and perfectly capable of killing a kid with a single bite. Yet they aren't responsible for ~60% of the deaths.

Also it only seems logical that dogs bred for being aggressive are aggressive. In the same way I'd argue for keeping your kids away from fighting breed cocks (I've been attacked by them, and while they don't do much damage to adults, you don't want to be attacked by them when your height is such that your eyes are within their reach).

If you have any evidence to the contrary, please do post it here.

> I guess that asshats will keep mistreating their dogs and enjoying in making them vicious and that something has to be done. But banning the dog is the wrong thing to do. Dangerous dog handlers license or/and personality screen of owners is the correct way to go IMHO.

I'm arguing for keeping kids away from pitbulls. Do not let your kids play with them. Whether it is the right thing to ban pitbulls depends on how you value the joy they bring their owners over another dog breed against the deaths they cause.

Correlation is all you need when it comes to safety. 50% of reported dog attacks that resulted in injury over the past 20 years were performed by pit bulls. I don't care what the causation is- pit bulls are obviously correlated to a higher number of attacks, so I don't think it's unreasonable to avoid them.

"Correlation doesn't necessarily imply Causation" is an important fact to remember, but you should also remember it doesn't mean correlation is meaningless.

So you're in favor of banning any car with more than 200BHP? And lets ban all the other dangerous shit (skates, bicycles, open fires,...). Cause its ok in the name of safety.

Talk about a huge leap. "It's ok for a person to elect to avoid a dog they do not trust" => "Ergo, we should ban fast cars, skates, bicycles, fires..."

What, do you think we should FORCE people to hang around suspicious dogs or something? So the dog doesn't get lonely, perhaps?

Bicycles are not dangerous. Skates and racing bicycles are only dangerous to their riders. Open fires are not dangerous at all. I've been making/playing with camp fires since I was 1 year old, and I can tell you that a game of soccer is far more dangerous. Of course this doesn't go for open fires in a forest and yes I think those should be banned (and are).

And yes, I'm in favour of physically limiting cars to the maximum allowed speed (or just over).

You say bicycles are not dangerous? Not of itself - but riding a bicycle certainly is. I know I know - you want statistics or it didn't happen: http://bicycleuniverse.info/transpo/almanac-safety.html

There - it says that more than 20 times more people got killed (750 in 2005!!!) from performing an in your opinion safe activities than from aggressive dogs.

I really apologize if I'm bashing you too much - but this is a perfect case of primal fear overcoming rational reason and I expect people here to be open towards other people pointing out their different POV.

Comparing the total deaths caused by two different activities is nonsensical. A comparison that makes sense is deaths caused per minute of the activity.

Whether cycling is safe depends on whether you live in a cyclist friendly or cyclist hostile country. It is also known that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks in expected life span: http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/info:doi/10.1289/ehp.0901...

In the Netherlands there are about 1.6 deaths per 100 million kilometers cycled (that number in the US is about 10x as large). If we generously assume an average velocity of 20 km/h, that's 3*10^6 hours of cycling giving on average 1 death. The human life span is about 10^6 hours. So even if you cycled day and night for your entire life, the probability of dying in a cycling accident would be about 30%. And note that only tourists wear helmets in the Netherlands, wearing a helmet is not worth the additional safety.

But really the important point is that when you're cycling you are taking the risk. Cyclists cause much fewer other deaths per km than drivers. When you let your pitbull play with a kid, other people are taking the risk.

> I expect people here to be open towards other people pointing out their different POV

I am open to other people's point of view, but when I find out that all the evidence is completely contrary to their point of view, like that pitbulls are not more dangerous than other dogs, then I decide that perhaps their POV is wrong. Note that I'm not saying that dogs are dangerous. I'm just saying that pitbulls are more dangerous than other dogs.

I am extrapolating from experiences with a tibetan mastiff and a bull terrier. I think dogs in this family are less temperamental and less snappy.They do have a lot of aggression for other dogs or animals of similar size. But a lot depends on how they were trained. A poorly trained pitbulls can be very dangerous. But they are extremely obedient even if it comes to following orders when they are in pain. I think this is the reason they are the preferred breed for dog-fighting. There a participant is disqualified if it continues to attack after a round has ended. I am sure that trait was bred in.

puddles? Is that a typo (poodles), or an attempt at humor?

I should mention that according to record, in 20 years poodles have been responsible for one (uno) reported attack resulting in injury, and according to the report there was reason to suspect the dog had been given a controlled substance.

Could you not observe the potentially dangerous dogs and then logically conclude that it may be prudent to leave the area? Why would you have to be afraid?

Logic can fail to put 2 and 2 together. Logic isn't always fast.

Fear is very, very fast and almost never fails. It allows the danger to command your attention in a way logic alone can never achieve. It also stimulates the whole fight-or-flight response, souping you up with chemicals in case you need 'em. It has it's limitations, but on the whole it does a much better job than logic would alone IMHO.

Being geekish myself, I totally understand the desire to replace everything with cool, calculating logic, but our basic instincts usually do a pretty damn good job. An easy example is if you put your hand on a hot stove, you will instinctively pull away, often even before you feel pain or heat. If you relied on logic (gee, this stove is hot and my hand hurts! I should pull my hand away) your burn would be much, much worse.

Yeah, fear is the loud siren, and red flashing lights, nuclear meltdown type warning.

> fear isn't something that kicks in often, but when it does it usually means you're in pretty grave danger

Fear is a very bad advisor. That's why some people have to rehearse disaster scenarios over and over until reacting to them becomes a routine activity - so they can properly react to the threatening situation.

I disagree with your "less common in the western world" assertion. There are still plenty of fast moving things that you might suddenly find it useful to be afraid of, from poisonous spiders to runaway vehicles.

But aside from all that, fear reactions also serve as an early-warning system to other people in your proximity who have not yet detected impending danger. Given that people physically close to you are the most likely ones to help you in a catastrophe, there are evolutionary advantages to keeping them in the loop ;)

> Pain, yes. Fear, debatable.

They are two sides of the same coin. Pain signals go to several places in the brain: the sensory centers ("my toe hurts right here") and the aversive conditioning center in the amygdala. The amygdala also receives signals from all over the brain, so when pain causes it to activate, it learns what was happening around the time of the pain. In the future, it will tend to produce an output signal that can activate protective programs elsewhere in the brain. In childhood, social activity wires it up to language and cognitive inputs too ("Did you get an ouchie?"), so that it can be used in all sorts of aversive behavior, not just avoiding physical injury. It's probably not a coincidence that social suffering is the language of pain: heartache, being stabbed in the back, etc.

> So most of the dangerous situations we actually encounter, we deal with using reason and learned behavior rather than fear instinct.

Most fear IS learned behavior; instinctive fears are quite simple. For example, The Gift of Fear [1] describes a man who walked into a convenience store, and for no reason he could explain turned right around and walked back out. Seconds later a cop walked in and was gunned down by robbers. Later the first guy replayed his memories and realized that the running car out front and the strange look the clerk gave him were probably the reason, but at the time logic and reason were nowhere to be seen. In fact the author of that book says that relying on logic is a good way to get yourself hurt. (Logical thinking has a very narrow range of focus in adults and easily misses hazards, but the amygdala constantly listens to the full range of senses and thoughts all at the same time.)

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Other-Survival-Signals-Protect-Violenc...

Not being able to feel pain is called Congenital Insensitivity to Pain. There's a great StuffYouShouldKnow Podcast about it: http://bit.ly/e0QWcg

"Previous studies with this patient revealed she can't recognize fear in facial expressions, but it was unknown if she had the ability to experience fear herself."

People have been say "it takes one to know one" for a long time, but real evidence that we can't recognized something unless we have that same capacity within ourselves would be piercing.

Tell me again why are so many self proclaimed good people are convinced that everyone else is evil?

> but real evidence that we can't recognized something unless we have that same capacity within ourselves would be piercing.

It would be difficult to find someone with no capacity for evil, wouldn't it?

>Researchers put out their best foot to try to scare the patient, who they refer to as "SM" in their write-up in the most recent issue of the journal Current Biology. Haunted houses, where monsters tried to evoke an avoidance reaction, instead evoked curiosity; spiders and snakes didn't do the trick; and a battery of scary film clips entertained SM.

The rest of the article aside: I don't think that's quite conclusive. After a few such trials, it'd get merely interesting or boring, and I have to wonder how skilled at frightening specific people researchers can ever be. On a more fundamental level, I highly doubt you can even perform an accurate test along these lines with a person's consent.

"People" as a whole? Easy, someone's always afraid of something at-hand. A single person, who knows what you're doing? Unlikely. Case in point: a little work with acclimating to spiders, and I'd pass those tests with flying colors. Haunted houses and scary film clips fall somewhere between mild amusement at the attempt and outright boredom, and I like snakes. Plus, snakes don't have legs / claws; get the head under control, and you're fine.

It's interesting that most of her other emotions function normally. It was my understanding that the amygdala facilitated a number of emotions, not just fear. Am I wrong?

"The diary also had her indicate emotions she was feeling from a list of 50 items. Her average score of fear was 0 percent, while for other emotions she showed normal functioning."

Far apart from the brain structure involved, what amazed me the most is the severability of fear from other emotions. For someone untrained in neuroscience and coming purely from an experiential point of view, it seems impossible that one emotion could be completely absent without having any effects on the functioning of others. For instance, even with an emotion like happiness, it seems like there's some component of the feeling that relates to the enjoyment of being free of fearful things. Perhaps the emotions don't actually function the same, but her perception of them is similar to unaffected patients?

I think it has to do with how primitive or instinctive the emotion is. I'd bet that fear is one of the oldest emotions, after all every animal experiences fear as far as I know.

Many of the other emotions are restricted to apes, specially humans. I'd say a dog can't be happy or sad, just excited or not excited. If those human emotions evolved thousands of years apart there is a good chance that they are at different parts of the brain.

You are correct, however, it is commonly accepted that sensory stimuli is the primary function of this nerve bundle. One thing I think everyone agrees on is that, the amygdala is responsible for most social learning processes;fear and anger being a few of those learning experiences.

>After this point, neither the concrete definition as to the extent of the amygdala is not clear, nor is the exact function of each of its subgroups. In the amygdala region alone, there is much controversy surrounding the nuclear subgroups, resulting in classifications that range between 5 and 22 different groups within the amygdala itself.

"The Role of the Amygdala in Fear and Panic". http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/1749

Not only does she not fear, but it appears she cannot assess danger (picked up a snake).

If you aren't afraid of the snake, what's the danger?

that it bites you and kills you? Fear is not a requirement for that to happen.

The problem is that the article doesn't specify if it was a dangerous snake or not, it's possible she recognised the type and knew it was safe to pick it up.

However, you'd have to say that fear of animals like this is a pretty good evolutionary development designed to protect us from threats where are own knowledge doesn't let us know for sure if it's safe or not (i.e. when it comes to snakes, most of us won't recognise how safe or not a snake is, so it's safer for us to be afraid of all of them.)

not all snakes are poisonous.

Its only a tiny fraction of all snakes that are poisonous and of them, not all are deadly to humans. But this is largely irrelevant because the chances are high that the snake in front of you has not been sampled uniformly from the distribution of all snakes. A lot of factors dictate the statistical make up of a snake that one may encounter and its aggression level. Geography, weather and time of the year play an important role.

Let me give an anecdotal example. My college has a reputation with snakes, so much so that pea-cocks were artificially introduced to control their population. I would hazard a conservative guess that 50% of all students encounter a snake in close proximity every year. These are almost always a cobra, krait or local species of a viper. All extremely poisonous. Nonetheless in the entire history of the institution there has not been a single instance of a snake bite, and they have actually stopped stocking on anti-venom.

But unless you are trained to handle snakes, picking them up is certainly not wise and my prior would be high that she did not have such a training.

This varies a lot by location. I guess you're in India, where there are lots of dangerous snakes. It sounds like SM is in North America, where there are only four poisonous snakes — cottonmouth, rattlesnake, copperhead, and coral snake — and they're all pretty easy to identify, and for the most part, not very aggressive. The vast majority of individual snakes in most parts of the US aren't one of these types, especially in urban areas.

You guessed correctly about my college.

What I found fascinating was the difference in aggression level of the same species at different times of the year. The speed of their strike also blew me away. But they can cover very short distances with that, so the trained handlers would pick them up like nothing.

But back to fear and reflexes. I had the opportunity to study one of the aggressive ones very closely in a protective enclosure. How much ever I resolved not to flinch when it lunged at me, I would invariably jump back a pace. The override is just way too strong to control consciously even when you can anticipate it and want to counter it. Even when you know you are not in any danger.

What I find interesting is that I dont think we are hardwired to fear snakes, it is learned. The hardwired bit might relate to sudden motion though.

You're correct - fear of snakes is not instinctual in humans. Most young primates will avoid a snake, while a young child who hasn't been taught otherwise will blithely walk over and pick one up.

I upvoted you for confirming my hunch. But not sure why it did not get added.

Aren't cottonmouths just a non-descript black color?

Some are (on top, anyway), some aren't. There aren't many other big black snakes in North America. They also have that big triangular viper head and that bright white mouth I hear they like to flash at you as a warning before they strike. (I've never lived in a cottonmouth area, so I don't have any personal experience with them.)

The vast majority of snakes are not a danger to humans.

Actually, I don't think any are poisonous. Many are venomous, though.

Huh, I had forgotten about this distinction, thank you.

Yeah, from the article it doesn't even necessarily sound like she's incapable of a panic response to highly negative situations so much as she doesn't consider that many situations to be highly negative.

Those two are not necessarily related, though. For example, poor understanding of a situation can lead to wild misjudgments of danger, whether or not someone experiences fear.

She perhaps assessed enough potential danger to move the snake away from her children.

Research into this could have clear and fascinating military applications. They're already well aware that a controlled psychopath is an asset:


Interesting, though somewhat disturbing. Using this research to select from nature's random yield is one thing, but leads one into something of an ethical minefield. Inducing or enhancing similar characteristics by neural modification would be bad, but people who already exhibit such pathologies wouldn't find that troubling at all.

The author seems a olittle overly-assured of his conclusions but that may just be the result of the short article form - the bibliography seems worth a look. 3-4% of the adult male population is a higher incidence than I'd have expected.

The danger is that psychopath with a gun is _really_, _really_ difficult to control.

This woman has missed her calling. She could be one of the greatest poker players the world has ever known.

IMO, your arguing with evolution. Its there for a reason.

This woman has not met me....

I think she is suffering from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ASPD

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