The Fear Project A new book exploring life's most primal emotion

Q&A

This Q&A is from Jaimal Yogis interview with Steven Kotler at Forbes.com

Why is this book important now?

More than 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder every year — and those are just the people who are diagnosed. Countless more are dealing with fears, stresses, and anxieties that hold them back from performing well at work and just enjoying life. The irony of this is that we live longer, healthier, safer lives than at any time in human history. In order to see life as it is, we have to understand how fear evolved in the human brain and why fear — though still very useful at times — is keeping many of us from living fully.

Why did you write a book about fear?

The truth is I’d been through a really lame break-up. I’d been through it before and I knew that fear was irrational. I knew intellectually it would all pass. But that didn’t stop the fear from permeating everything I did. I started wondering why there is this disconnect between our emotions and our intellect, how fear works in the brain and body, and how I could be more brave.

You spoke with some of the most world-renowned neuroscientists and psychologists for this book. What was the most important insight you gained?

One bit of research that has really influenced me is how we process fear memories. Up until very recently, scientists thought memories worked more like a storage bank. Say you got fired in some really humiliating way from your dream job as, let’s say, a Zamboni driver. Scientists thought that memory of being fired was locked in, meaning, somewhere in your brain, you might forever fear Zamboni driving. But we now know, thanks to scientists like Joseph Ledoux, that every time you recall being ousted from the Zamboni, your brain retrieves that original memory and updates it with new information. So that memory — the actual physical structure of it in your brain — is changeable. It’s plastic. You can “go into” that fear by conjuring up the memory — ideally when you’re feeling good, maybe when you’re laughing with a friend — and by associating the negative memory with other experiences, you change that old fear memory permanently. So the good news is that healing from trauma is possible. But the rather weird news is that memories actually get further from the “truth” of what really happened the more times they’re recalled.

What was the scariest thing you did?

Truly, the scariest part of all my research — including surfing giant waves off Half Moon Bay and diving with great white sharks — was writing this book. Like every writer, I wanted it to be perfect, for it to be praised, and the deep anxiety that this pursuit caused me taught me something about myself. I realized my deepest fears are around rejection, but I also learned I’m not alone. Social anxiety disorder is one of the most common disorders and it makes sense. As my friend neuropsychologist Rick Hanson recently told me, when humans were evolving in east Africa, getting rejected from the tribe could be a death sentence, and that fear of rejection was so adaptive, it became innate in most of us. We want to belong more than anything, which may be why you hear about soldiers saying they would have rather been killed than been called a coward and why public speaking ranks so high in fear polls.

What’s the difference between fear that limits us in our careers and relationships and the fear of an actual physical threat?

According to the scientists I’ve spoken to, all fears involve a little almond shaped gizmo deep in our ancient brain called the amygdala. When you see a shark, the visual image of the shark routes from your visual thalmus to your amygdala, which tells your body to produce chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals speed up your heart-rate, shut down your immune system, digestion, and reproductive systems, allowing you to use all the energy that would usually go toward, say, digesting a granola bar for swimming like hell to the beach. And the fear response is in full swing well before you can even say, “I’m afraid.” It’s faster than conscious thought. It had to be to keep us alive in the wild.

Now, let’s compare this shark encounter to a more modern fear: worry about what others might think of you if you bomb a presentation at work. This fear involves more modern parts of our brain in the cortex. But it’s similar in that, when you think about, say, your co-workers laughing at you, that “threat” can route to the amygdala and cause the exact same symptoms as the shark: faster heartrate, shut down digestion and reproduction, etc. That’s why just thinking about making a presentation can make some people want to vomit. Our thoughts are very powerful.

What’s the best way to overcome fear?

There are lots of valid methods that I discuss in the book, but I think the best, most direct way to deal with fear is action. If you can do something to fix a problem or debunk a fear, do it. Act. You will be so glad you did, even if the fear seems small. (Sometimes those are big ones dressed up mini.) If the fear is something you can’t personally do anything about — say, whether Iran will obtain a nuke — unless you’re working for the CIA, why worry about it? It’s out of your hands.

Is it possible to be fearless?

I don’t think we would actually want to be (nice as it sometimes sounds). We actually need shots of adrenaline and cortisol and dopamine (a pleasure chemical associated with risk and novelty) to help us get into peak performance states, to stay up late and work when we’re on a tight deadline, to keep us from making stupid decisions. Though too much fear is horrible for your health — and most of my book is about learning to overcome fear — these biological chemicals can be good in short bursts. Life would be dull without them. So, rather than pushing fear away, understanding fear is the best way to not be controlled by it. Fear is part of life, but it doesn’t have to dictate your life.

What’s your advice to someone who is being held back by fear?

It’s so much worse to deal with the inadequacy and dullness that comes from not taking risks in pursuit of a dream than it is to try and fail. Failure isn’t failure if you fail doing what you love. It’s something that makes you better at what you love.

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