This Is Your Brain on Fear

Scott Lucas | January 23, 2013 | Story Reporters Notebook

Contributing writer Jaimal Yogis, who most recently hunted down animal rights terrorists and plunged into the Maverick's surf contest controversy for San Francisco magazine, just released his second book, The Fear Project. In it, Yogis sets outs to understand and confront his deepest fears. Scott Lucas set out to understand and confront him.

SL: Your book is about understanding fear. One of the places that you drew on was cutting-edge neuroscience. How does understanding the brain help you understand what makes you afraid?

JY: The basic gist is that we have two brains—a lizard brain and a rocket scientist brain. The rocket scientist is slow and accurate, whereas the lizard is super fast, but imprecise. By the time the rocket scientist is at the scene, the lizard has already made the decisions. On a narrow, biological level, all fear is linked through the same ancient fear system—the amygdala. Something needs to ping to send the fear through the body to give you the extra energy to fight or flight.

SL: But that system has drawbacks.

JY: Right. For a physical fear, that system makes sense. You need to be alert. But the funny thing about us humans is that we have this ability to think about the future. The more modern part of the brain controls that. But the anxiety that comes from thinking about all that might in the future also pings that ancient fear system. It sends the same fear signals through the body. That can be really unhelpful sometimes.

SL: In the book, you put yourself in all kinds of fearful situations. You swim out to Alcatraz in an insanely strong current. You surf at Mavericks. But you also confront social anxieties—dating and public speaking to name two. How do you deal with fear?

JY: Sometimes the rocket scientist can control the lizard. Like when I am speaking in public. I'm terrified, but I will myself not to run away. That’s absolutely the rocket scientist controlling the lizard. But there's also ways in which the rocket scientist can compromise with the lizard. That comes through something like meditation. Sit still for 20 minutes and focus on the breath. That will convince the lizard that things are safer than he thinks. The rocket scientist is, through its intelligence, getting the lizard to calm down. He says to it—chill. Exercise is also like that. I always go for a big run or swim or surf before I give a book talk. Fear is trying to motivate me to move. Going for a run tricks the lizards.

SL: There must be things that still scare you, though?

JY: There’s always fear there, because the future is unknown. Fear is not going to go away because I wrote a book abot swimming with great white sharks and surfing at Mavericks. That doesn’t go away—even for Buddhist monks. Now I have plenty of anxiety about my next book, or the fact that my wife and I are having another child in July. But I think I have this system now, where I take this fear—like that I won’t have enough time for my second son—and I ask if this a fear that will motivate me to some positive action. If not, I scratch it off the list.

SL: I think the next book you do ought to be something like The Pleasure Project.

JY: That would be cool. But, you know, people can get the wrong idea from the title. It wasn't about petting tarantulas on my face. It wasn't an episode of Fear Factor. It’s really the courage project.

SL: Why courage?

JY: We value courage so highly, and we have for a long time. People have been writing about it for millennia. The reason why is that courage is the deciding factor in allowing us to survive. Humans couldn’t be an alpha species without being a risk taking species. Look at the research on dopamine—the pleasure we get from doing something new and risky shows that we are gluttons for risk.

SL: If this is such an ancient theme, why write a book about courage and fear now?

JY: We live in the safest, wealthiest, longest-living time in the world as a whole. And we’re also more afraid than ever. The safer that we become the more we fear, because we can lose more. That’s such a bummer. America is safe and wealthy, but sad and afraid. If we don’t understand our biology, and what we’re saddled with, we won’t be able to prepare ourselves for the onslaught of false threats thrown our way by technology. Your lizard brain can’t deal with the onslaught of threats from CNN and twitter. We live in a low buzz of constant anxiety. Understanding our biology is key to allowing us to enjoy this kind of golden age that we live in, despite all the problems that we have.

Purchase a copy of The Fear Project here.

Jaimal Yogis will be reading from The Fear Project at Copperfields Books (138 N. Main Street, Sebastopol) on Jan. 24th. The book party will be at Coast Wine Bar (3815 Noriega St.) on Jan. 31st. More info on the book and the author on his website.

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