The must-read brain books of 2017 included an exploration of an emotion rooted so deeply in all living species, it's arguably the most basic of emotions. The Fear Factor traces the origins of fear and its connectivity across species, most especially how it connects all of us—from the far poles of psychopathy to extreme altruism, and all points in between. I spoke with the author of The Fear Factor, Dr. Abigail Marsh, about the center of fear in the brain, whether humans are wired for altruism, psychopathic kids, and several other topics.
Your new book, The Fear Factor, traces a connection between two extremes that don’t initially seem to have much in common: altruism and psychopathy. Give us the 30-second version of what this connection is about.
My interest in studying psychopathy is in part due to my interest in studying the origins of care and compassion. Psychopathy makes a nice clinical case of what a brain that is lacking care and compassion looks like. This approach (studying people who lack some phenomena to understand that phenomena) is common—like studying people with amnesia to understand memory, or studying people with face-blindness to understand face recognition. In any case, we found that people who are psychopathic are reliably characterized by three traits: amygdalas that are smaller than average and less reactive to the sight of others' fear, and a reduced ability to recognize others' fear.
These issues may explain why people who are psychopathic don't respond compassionately to others' distress—the brain structure most important for recognizing and generating an emotional response to others' fear isn't working right. Conversely, we found that highly altruistic people are in some ways "anti-psychopaths"—their amygdalas are larger than average, more responsive to the sight of others' fear, and they are relatively better at recognizing others' fear. This may help explain their heightened compassion—their increased sensitivity to others' distress.
You mentioned a part of the brain that we hear much about in relation to fear, anxiety and stress – the amygdala. What makes this little brain area so central to so much of our emotional lives?
The amygdala is an ancient brain structure under the cortex that is involved in many processes but essential for only a few. One of them is fear responding. People whose amygdalas are damaged or absent are notoriously fearless. In addition, they have difficulty recognizing others' fear, or responding to it appropriately. They literally have difficulty empathizing with an emotion in others that they don't feel themselves. There is good evidence from animal studies that within the amygdala lie neural pathways that help us recognize when others are in danger and need help, and may also help generate the motivation to help them. This may be why people who are unusually callous in response to others' distress have amygdalas that are dysfunctional, whereas people who are unusually compassionate have amygdalas that are, in a sense, hyperfunctional.
There’s ongoing debate about whether humans are “wired” to be altruistic (and by extension whether there’s an evolutionary advantage to altruism). Some argue that what we think of as altruism is really just a form of selfishness, because being altruistic makes us feel better about ourselves or provides other self-serving advantages. What does your research lead you to conclude about altruism as a hardwired human trait, and whether it’s really just selfishness in disguise?
There is no doubt that humans are, as a species, wired with the capacity to care for others—to be altruistic. We need that capacity to motivate us to care for our children, as do all mammals, which is why all mammals seem to share common neurohormonal functions that motivate them to care for their babies for months or years at a time. But across species, or within a species, we see wide variation in caring behavior, probably due to variation in how this circuitry is functioning—both as a result of genetic variation and different life experiences (both are important). We also see wide variation in who gets cared for. Some mammals care only for their own babies; others, like most humans, provide care for anything that even faintly resembles a baby or communicates distress.
It's true that caring for those who are in need is reinforcing—just as successfully performing any goal-oriented behavior is reinforcing. That's a feature, not a bug. The philosopher Matthieu Ricard has argued, and I agree with him, that the fact that we find caring for others rewarding is proof that we are altruistically motivated—because if we were not, why would we find caring for others rewarding? People who are truly selfish and care only about feeling good tend to be psychopathic and antisocial. They are the opposite of altruists.
It seems like we’re endlessly fascinated with psychopathy–with what makes someone a psychopath and how we can recognize psychopathic traits in others (or ourselves). Your book places psychopathy in at least partly a biological light, as an almost predictable outcome of certain chemical processes playing out. What surprised you the most about what your research with psychopathic kids revealed about psychopathy?
I was surprised both by how incredibly normal—sometimes supernormal—the psychopathic children I've worked with often seem initially. If I lined up all the children I've worked with who had psychopathic traits and mixed them in with a bunch of healthy children, you'd never know who was who. It's a good reminder that what's on the outside doesn't always line up with what's on the inside. I was also surprised by how paradoxically optimistic working with them made me feel about human nature more broadly. Working with children who are clinically lacking in care and compassion highlights how not-normal that is—highlights how truly capable of care and compassion the average person really is, even if we don't always express it as well as we could.
And I agree with the 'almost predictable' part. Nearly every human trait there is varies continuously among people. Some people are more extraverted and some more introverted. Some have more self-control, some have less. So if compassion is a typical human trait, there will inevitably be some people who have very little of it and some who have a lot. I should emphasize that that's not to say that any of these traits are fixed! Our brains and minds are capable of growth and change throughout life.
You discuss several examples from nature that defy our expectations about predatory behavior (like a lioness caring for a baby baboon as if it was her own), but make sense in light of your book’s thesis. What do these examples tell us about our neural similarities with other species?
These studies reinforce the fact that there is nothing inherently contradictory about a single species, or even a single individual, having the capacity for both care and aggression. Lions are wonderful mothers who will, as you allude to, care tenderly not only for each others' babies but occasionally babies of others species like baboons and antelopes who trigger their maternal response. But of course they are also fearsome hunters. So are they really savage and fierce or really caring and tender? They are both. There is no need to choose. Humans are no different. And much of the same neural hardware supports tender maternal care in every mammalian species, humans and lions included, which shows how deeply rooted our capacity for care is.
What does your research lead you to believe about the human capacity to change–to become more caring, more giving and less self-centered? Is there a workable path forward for us to become a better species, or are we hemmed in by our biology?
We clearly have the capacity to become more caring, because we are becoming more caring. Research I did for the book found fascinatingly similar positive trendlines for various kinds of caring behavior—particularly altruism toward strangers—all around the world. Donating blood, donating money, volunteering, helping strangers in everyday ways—all of these behaviors are becoming more common, not less (despite what we see in the news). Preliminary evidence suggests that what supports these changes are widespread changes in flourishing and well-being that promote increasing valuation of strangers' welfare. There are also a number of lab studies showing that compassion can be increased at the individual level via a variety of methods, including compassion meditation and even, maybe, reading literature.
What’s the most important takeaway you’d like people to receive from reading The Fear Factor?
That the capacity for both compassion and cruelty are deep seated parts of human nature. Both are equally real and important, and both have clear biological origins. Studying the brain basis of these phenomena has helped illuminate for me what it means to be human, and also how we may be able to make humans better.
The newly revised and updated 2018 edition of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite is now available.