World With No Fear Alix explains how nature imbued us with the need to feel fear, and how the modern world sends it into unnecessary overdrive. We'll also hear about the striking (and rare) case of a woman with no fear.

World With No Fear

World With No Fear

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Alix explains how nature imbued us with the need to feel fear, and how the modern world sends it into unnecessary overdrive. We'll also hear about the striking (and rare) case of a woman with no fear.

World With No Fear

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is INVISIBILIA, stories about the invisible forces that shape human behavior.


I'm Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: And I'm Alix Spiegel. And today we are talking about fear, and like many stories that involve fear, this one begins in the woods.


SPIEGEL: This is tape from a film which shows two little children, ages 4 and 6, together in a clearing in the forest. They're alone, two tiny bodies dwarfed by tall, dark trees. Close by in the brush, a man is watching them. By his side, there's a camera. But really, the children don't even seem to notice the man. They're too busy, absorbed in one of the most central, sacred activities of human childhood...


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Imitating fart noises).

SPIEGEL: ...The production of fart noises. Now, this film is all about the fart noises, in a way. The man filming them from the trees was an environmental psychologist who was interested in what children do when they're alone because at that time - this film was taken in the 1970s - that work had literally never been done before.

ROGER HART: They just hadn't been studying children in natural settings.

SPIEGEL: This is Roger Hart, the environmental psychologist in the trees.

HART: Almost nothing was known about how children even explored the world, and then I came across a book on baboons. And I realized that we knew more about baboons' everyday behavior than we did about children's behavior outside of school.

SPIEGEL: And so you wanted to study children the way Jane Goodall studied baboons?

HART: Precisely.

SPIEGEL: So Roger found himself a small town in Vermont, set himself up there and started tracking all of the children in the town.

HART: There were 86 children between 3 and 12 years of age, and I worked with all of them, all of the waking hours for two and a half years, I was with them. They were my life, these kids.

SPIEGEL: Roger would follow the kids throughout the day, documenting everywhere the children went by themselves.

HART: Show me the places that are dangerous. Show me the places that are scary. Take me to where you're not supposed to go, and show me where that is.

SPIEGEL: He then took that information and literally made maps...

HART: OK. Let me just find the chapter.

SPIEGEL: ...Physical maps that measured the distance each child was allowed to go by themselves and what the average was for every age group. And what Roger discovered was that these kids had remarkable freedom. Even 4- or 5-year-olds, like the ones in the woods, traveled unsupervised throughout their neighborhoods, and by the time they were 10, most of the kids had the run of the entire town.

HART: They had more than the run of the town. Some of them would go to the lake, which would be on the edge of town, and the lake, you'd think, would be a place that would be out of bounds.

SPIEGEL: But the parents weren't worried about the lake or their kids being abducted.

HART: Abduction wasn't something I ever heard anybody talk about then.

SPIEGEL: So there was no stranger danger?


SPIEGEL: The point is that these parents weren't particularly motivated by fear.


SPIEGEL: Which brings us to today. See, several years ago, Roger went back to the exact same town to document the children of the children that he had originally tracked in the '70s, and when he asked the new generation of kids to show him where they played alone, what he found floored him.

HART: They just didn't have very far to take me, just walking around their property, really.

SPIEGEL: The huge circle of freedom on the maps had grown tiny.

HART: There is no free range outdoors. Even when they're much, much older, parents now say, I need to know where you are. I need to know where you are at all times.

SPIEGEL: What's odd about all of this, Roger says, is that the town is not more dangerous than it was before. There's literally no more crime today than there was 40 years ago.

HART: You know, 35 years later, it's remarkably the same.

SPIEGEL: Same physically?

HART: Same physically and demographically, in terms of living in the town, very similar.

SPIEGEL: So why has the invisible leash between parent and child tightened so much? Roger says it was absolutely clear from his interviews. The reason was fear.

ANDREW: You know, you just never know who's out there and what these crazy people are doing.

MILLER: Now, this frightened parent is actually somebody you've already met before.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Imitating fart noises).

MILLER: Andrew, the very little boy playing unattended in the woods at age 4, all grown up. Even he told Roger he was too afraid to let his kids roam free.

ANDREW: I think when we were children, you know, my parents wouldn't worry if I was gone for an hour, you know, or up in the woods. But here, if my girls are gone for five minutes, I start to, you know, think, OK somebody could be turning around at the end of the road and - or, you know, whatever. So that makes a big difference.

SPIEGEL: And what Roger found in this small town, you see it again and again across America. Crime is at its lowest levels nationally since the 1950s, but everywhere you look, fear of the world outside our door narrows the circle of our lives. Why?

RALPH ADOLPHS: Are you rolling? Yeah. He's rolling. So I guess we're ready.

SPIEGEL: This is Ralph Adolphs, a professor at Caltech who spent decades studying fear in the human brain. And when we were talking, he said something that really struck me. He said our overall fear threshold - that is what triggers our fear - is something that evolution has set and set at a high level for a very good reason.

ADOLPHS: You know, if I just hear a slight creak in my house at night, I feel fear, and 99.9 percent of the time, there's no burglar in the house. And it's all safe. But nonetheless, I felt fear. So you have a lot of false positives. But that's as it should be because you don't want to miss any.

SPIEGEL: The problem, Adolphs says, is just that modern life - it's constantly triggering our fear in all kinds of ways that our natural world didn't.


SPIEGEL: This is the sound of the first mass murder captured on film in American history. It was recorded in Austin, Texas, in 1966 after a lone shooter named Charles Whitman stormed the balcony of the clock tower in the middle of the University of Texas campus and started firing at random.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There must have been a hit that last time. We hear people outside of our building in an area where we can't now look safely saying, let's help that boy. Does he need help? Someone must be down.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ricochet bullets bouncing off the top of the...


SPIEGEL: It is chilling to see this footage - the puffs of gun smoke floating from the deck of the clock tower, the people falling to the sidewalk in the hot Texas sun and not getting up. It's terrible. But today, of course, it's not exactly novel.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: This morning in Michigan, police have arrested a man who's suspected of chopping up his wife.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A stranger seized a child.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Three men accused of abducting and holding the women hostage.

SPIEGEL: Horror inflicted on other people surrounds us. And Adolphs argues that because of our wiring, we are just not set up to ignore it.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: A serial killer...

SPIEGEL: And so it distorts our experience of the world, activating our fear when we don't need it.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: And police say it's only a matter of time before he strikes again.

SPIEGEL: Essentially, Adolphs is saying that a lot of our modern First World fear is totally unnecessary.

ADOLPHS: I think not being able to experience fear is mostly lethal if you're in the wild. But in today's world, I mean, I'm sitting here in my office, and, you know, other than a microphone in my face, there's not a particular threat going on. So our environment, which of course isn't the environment in which we evolved, you know, there just aren't that many hazards around.

SPIEGEL: Which got Lulu and I thinking. What would happen to us if we somehow disappeared our fear?


MILLER: I'm Lulu Miller.

SPIEGEL: And I'm Alix Spiegel.

MILLER: And what we do on our show is look at invisible things, like emotions, assumptions, beliefs and ideas, that control human behavior. And today, that thing we are looking at is fear...



MILLER: ...That ancient chemical reaction that's shaped us and allowed us to survive as a species.



SPIEGEL: How would our lives be different if we were able to short-circuit fear?

MILLER: So bring your bear whistles and arm your home security alarm systems because...

SPIEGEL: It's fear hour.

MILLER: All right, Alix. So you're going to get us started, right?

SPIEGEL: Yeah. So the question is, what happens when you disappear fear? And to answer it, I went to one of the only people who can, like, objectively try to answer that question, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California named Antonio Damasio.

ANTONIO DAMASIO: I always like to say that I have a perfect face for radio.

SPIEGEL: No. No, no, no. I know - the same for me.

See, one day in the early '90s, a young woman came to see Damasio. We're going to call her SM for reasons that I'll get to shortly.

DAMASIO: She looked like a pleasant woman. She had a very open face and looked like a perfectly normal person.

SPIEGEL: SM had originally come to the hospital because she had these unexplained blackouts. But Damasio says that, sitting there, everything about her seemed quite normal, except for one small thing - her physical proximity.

DAMASIO: It struck me a little bit out of the ordinary she was very close to you. And that of course came to have an interpretable meaning after we knew more about her. But at that point, I would say that she looked like a perfectly normal person. And she is a perfectly normal person, except for one particular problem.

SPIEGEL: The problem? The woman couldn't feel fear - literally could not experience that emotion.

DAMASIO: Fearless - that's the best way of describing it.

SPIEGEL: Now, fearlessness like this, that is a biological inability to feel fear, is incredibly rare. Fear is one of the most basic emotions that we have, so it's next to impossible to find someone without it.

DAMASIO: Fear, it's a very towering emotion.

SPIEGEL: In fact scientists have identified only about 400 people on earth with the condition that was causing fearlessness in SM.

DAMASIO: A very unusual disease called Urbach-Wiethe disease.

SPIEGEL: Urbach-Wiethe has three main symptoms. People with disease have an extremely hoarse voice, small bumps around their eyes, but also the disease leads to these deposits in the brain.

DAMASIO: Deposits of calcium, little stones in certain parts of the brain. And one part in particular is a favorite for those deposits, and that is the amygdala.

SPIEGEL: The amygdala are two almond-shaped structures deep in the brain critical for the processing of fear. And in SM's brain, her amygdala were completely calcified.

DAMASIO: It's a little bit as if you would go to this region and literally scoop it out.

MILLER: Which is why biologically, SM couldn't feel fear. That bit of brain couldn't signal to the rest of her body that it was time for her heart to start racing and her palms to sweat. It's also why SM was so profoundly valuable to the scientists who studied her, like Damasio, and the fear researcher Ralph Adolphs that you heard earlier because fear seems critical to survival. But here was SM, alive and also completely normal in other ways. She had normal intelligence and no problem with any other emotion.

DAMASIO: You know, joy, sadness, anger - she was perfectly normal with those. Fear was really an isolated defect.

SPIEGEL: In a sea of emotions, her brain had subtracted just one, which brings me to the reason why we are using SM instead of the woman's real name because, as you might imagine, being without fear is dangerous.

DAMASIO: To make the point very clearly, if she would be threatened - and she has in her life - she would not register the fear that that would immediately cause in you or me.

SPIEGEL: And so for the last three decades, the scientists researching SM have been very, very careful about guarding her identity. Though people have written about her, no reporter has ever been allowed to contact her or anyone connected to her. No one has heard from her directly in any way until now.



SM: Hello.

TRANEL: Hello.

SM: Hey.

SPIEGEL: This is SM.

TRANEL: You're on there?

SM: I'm on here, yes, sir.

SPIEGEL: Like every other journalist, I was not allowed to meet or even email SM. I don't know her name or where she lives or how old she is - nothing I could use to identify her because if her identity leaked, people could very easily take advantage of her. But I was able to give a short list of questions to one of the neuroscientists who's been studying her for the last 20 or so years, a man named Daniel Tranel.

TRANEL: Dr. Daniel Tranel at the University of Iowa.

SPIEGEL: And he called SM on the phone and recorded as he read to her from my list.


TRANEL: Tell me what fear is.

SM: Well, that's what I'm trying to - to be honest, I truly have no clue.

TRANEL: Do you have a sense of what it would feel like to be afraid and feel fear?

SM: No, not really.

SPIEGEL: When SM first met the scientists who've been studying her, she was in her early 20s, a wife and mother of young boys. By that time, her amygdala was already completely calcified, so she couldn't feel fear. But apparently before the complete calcification, when she was very young, she had experienced fright.


TRANEL: Tell me this, when do you remember feeling fear in your life?

SM: I believe when I was just a little girl.

SPIEGEL: SM had been out fishing with her dad, and they caught a great, big catfish.


SM: And I didn't wanted touch the doggone fish.

TRANEL: You were afraid to take the fish off the hook.

SM: Yes, because I didn't want to get bit. And that's the only time when I can really remember, being afraid of the doggone fish when I was small.

SPIEGEL: Somewhere in her teens, somewhere between the catfish and walking into Damasio's office, SM's ability to experience fear just slowly faded out and the world around her became benign, a place populated by people and things that only seemed to wish her well. Damasio and the other scientists who have studied SM know this because they've done all kinds of tests that prove it's true. They've exposed her to the most terrifying animals that they could find, snakes.

DAMASIO: She had to be restrained from playing with the ones that would actually be quite dangerous to her.

SPIEGEL: They've tried to condition a fear response into her by randomly assaulting her with the sound of a loud, jarring horn - nothing. She just seems emotionally blind to the experience of fear.


SM: I wonder what it's like, you know, to actually be afraid of something.

SPIEGEL: For example, in one of the studies that Damasio did, he asked SM to draw for him a picture of a face with a fearful expression, but she couldn't do it.

DAMASIO: She would be puzzled and would be - pencil in hand and paper, and she would not be able to draw a face of fear, not even able to conjure up the image.

SPIEGEL: Which brings us back to the big question of the show; what would it be like to walk through the modern world with no fear? Are you OK? What I can tell from looking at the case of SM - and it is one case - is that her inability to feel fear, it makes her much more open and friendly than most people...


SM: Nice to meet you.

SPIEGEL: ...Which in many ways is a great thing. But it also has its downsides because SM is often open even with people who mean her harm.


SM: Years ago, when my three sons were small...

TRANEL: OK. Don't say their names.

SM: OK. I was walking to the store, and I saw this man on a park bench. He said, come here please. So I went over to him. I said, what do you need? He grabbed me by the shirt, and he held a knife to my throat and told me he was going to cut me. I told him - I said, go ahead and cut me. And I said I'll be coming back, and I'll haunt your ass. Oops. Am I supposed to say that? I'm sorry.

TRANEL: That's OK. It's an intense situation. How did you feel when that happened?

SM: I wasn't afraid. And for some reason, he let me go. And I went home.

TRANEL: Call the police?

SM: No.

SPIEGEL: In her life, SM has been held at knifepoint at least once besides this and held at gunpoint twice. Also her first husband nearly beat her to death. So clearly, a life without biological fear exposes you to dangers that are easier to avoid if you do have fear. But talking to Damasio, I never got the sense that he saw a lack of fear as a death sentence at all.

How do you make it through the world if you're not physically capable of fear?

DAMASIO: Oh, you can make it perfectly well, obviously, if you are smart enough. The big difference here is having a true emotive reaction or having to think through it, which may be more or less accurate and certainly longer in time, in terms of the response. The beauty of emotions is that they're ready-mades. What an emotion is - same way that an instinct or drive - is that you don't need to think about it in order to do it. It's a natural, ready-made way of leading you to the correct behavior.

SPIEGEL: One thing that SM might be showing us, Damasio is suggesting, is that we might not need our ready-made of fear as much as we have assumed. There are other variable paths to the correct behavior, like logic.


TRANEL: If you were crossing the street, and you looked up and saw a car racing toward you, how do you think you would feel?

SM: I would try to get out of the way.

TRANEL: You don't feel your heart race or skip a beat?

SM: I don't know. But I would try to jump out of its way.

SPIEGEL: Which finally brings me to the absolutely crazy thing about not having fear that I feel like I learned from looking at the case of SM, which is this; without fear, trauma is not traumatizing.


SM: Instead of running away, I faced it. I said, I'll be coming back, and I'll haunt your ass (laughter).

DAMASIO: If she cannot conceptualize the threat, she hasn't had the bad events happen to her.

SPIEGEL: Can you just say that again?

DAMASIO: Sorry. The bad events appear to us because we know that she was threatened, but she herself did not see herself as threatened. So as a result, she is lacking the bad stuff in her life.

SPIEGEL: To me, this is incredible, like, metaphysical.

DAMASIO: It's not metaphysical. It's very objective. It's because the situation was indeed not threatening in the sense that it would be for us. Then she didn't have a bad episode to register in the history of her life. In other words, if she looks at her autobiography, her autobiography does not have that written in big letters as this was a bad thing because it was not a bad thing in terms of her experience. It's not that she is masking it. It's that she didn't have it to begin with.


TRANEL: Well, let me ask you this. Would you consider yourself a happy person?

SM: You know, there's some days that I could be on top of the world, and there's some days that, you know, I can be - got the blues. But 9 out of 10, I'd say happy.


SPIEGEL: It seems like such an odd bargain. If you have no fear, more terrible things will happen to you, but you don't personally experience them as terrible. If you have a lot of fear, fewer bad things are likely to happen, but it's very probable that your life is more painful to you. So is it better to be fearful or fearless? Which side of the continuum do you choose?

When we come back, we experiment with two different ways of reducing fear. And because this is not just high-class journalism but also cheesy, secret self-help made by two women who have unironically watched all of Jennifer Aniston's romantic comedies, we will offer you at the very end of the program an actual formula that you can break down that will help you to face your fear, whatever your fear is.

MILLER: I think I just heard the soul of an NPR founder scream out and die.

SPIEGEL: Yeah, I think I just heard that, too. INVISIBILIA will be back in a minute.

[Editor's note on June 28, 2018: NPR has deleted a surname from this story because that person was promised anonymity as a participant in academic research and in reporting this story we agreed to respect that promise.]

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.