On the Human Condition
Volume XXVIII Number 2
I knew I was in trouble when I had to chalk my hands.
My coaches were trying hard to pry my grip from the metal supports next to me, one white-knuckled finger at a time. I needed the chalk on my palms because I was about to grab a trapeze bar and leap off a foot-wide platform suspended 30 feet in the air.
To "fly" on a trapeze, you have to lean 45 degrees off the platform edge, extend one arm to grab the horizontal bar, then release your second hand to grasp it. After that, torso tall and legs straight, you step off into the air.
With both hands locked on the platform supports beside me, I was pretty much stalled on step one. Despite the broad and sturdy net beneath me, the leather safety belt cinched around my waist, the thick ropes clipped to the belt, and my firm and friendly helpers nearby, I was deeply, instinctively, even primitively, afraid.
As I stood frozen 30 feet up, sensory messages were screaming into my amygdala, an almond-shaped bit of matter that is "the hub in the brain's wheel of fear," in the words of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, a New York University professor and pioneer in studying the neurobiology of fear. Set off by a stimulus--the sound of heavy footsteps in the dark, the shape of a snake on a path, the unprotected edge of a high platform--the amygdala sounds the alarm while the brain's sensory cortex works on interpreting just how dangerous the situation is. According to LeDoux and others, my (very) conscious feeling of fear was the result of long-term, even ancient, fear memories being activated in the amygdala.
Neuroscience--studying the brain's networks, structures, and functions--promises discoveries that may bring us as close as we can come to understanding what makes us human. James D. Watson, the IU graduate and co-discoverer of DNA, put it this way in a recent interview: "Now we want to find the language of the brain, how we write memories in the brain. How do you write a telephone number in the brain? How do you write 'four,' and how do you retrieve it? When you want to find the uniqueness of humans, it's not going to be a gene. It's the human brain we want to understand."
I have no idea what languages my brain was speaking up there on the trapeze, but I finally got some message. I stepped, and I flew.