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The teacher talks about courage, how to overcome fear at the conference | News, Sports, Employment

Abigail Marsh speaks during the morning lecture on Monday morning, August 15 in the Amphitheater. SEAN SMITH/STAFF PHOTO

CHAUTAUQUA — The secret to courage may be in the groundwork that is laid in advance.

“The most effective way to overcome fear with anything is just to deliberately expose yourself to it in small doses and gradually increase the level of threat, with a professional (counselor) if necessary, because fear is somehow a habit”. said teacher Abigail Marsh.

Marsh shared his views “Brave Brain” with an audience at the Chautauqua Institution Amphitheater on Monday as part of the theme: “New Profiles in Courage”.

He said an example of people who overcome fear by building good habits is free climber Alex Honnold. He said he’s been scared, but the reason he can climb the way he does is because he’s learned when he’s not scared. He achieved his climb record by starting small and becoming more and more challenging and practicing non-stop.

He mentioned how Dave McCartney, then 21 in 2006, helped a woman free herself from a burning car. He also mentioned how Senator Corey Booker was also a heroic rescuer when he saved a girl from the flames in a house fire.

And Marsh recalled a time, when he was 19 years old traveling on a highway in Tacoma, Wash., when he swerved to miss a dog. She said a stranger driving behind her helped her to safety. He never found out his name.

“I regret not asking until today” she said “I’m here today because of that stranger, a man who didn’t just go on.”

So his research focuses on why people stop to help others when they can just move on. He said the origins of fear lie in the amygdala, a structure in the brain of mammals, including humans. He said that what the amygdala needs is to coordinate the experience of fear when it calculates that something bad is about to happen.

Some people, due to injury or disease, lose the function of their amygdala. He referenced a woman named SM and her tonsil had disappeared due to a genetic disorder. But, Marsh said, SM lives without fear and cannot tell when others are afraid. As part of the investigation, she was taken to Waverly Hills Sanatorium, a very scary place, on Halloween.

She showed no fear, Marsh said, and ironically scared off one of the so-called monsters trying to scare her.

Marsh noted that people with psychopathy respond as SM did in the lab: without fear. Psychopathy, he said, is a personality disorder that begins early in life. People with psychopathy are not afraid, and they also don’t know when others are afraid. And in the findings, he reported, those with higher levels of psychopathy have smaller amygdalae.

Marsh said that Nelson Mandela once said: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

Marsh said that a hero may be more sensitive to fear and not to what moves him to action in response to a victim’s terror. Every hero he’s worked with says he responded on instinct.

Having a sense of humility and gratitude helps increase well-being because the focus is taken away from oneself.

“Excessive self-focus is at the root of much misery: the rumination that underlies depression and the self-consciousness associated with social anxiety.” she said

Marsh noted that one should look for experiences that create a sense of awe. By creating a sense of awe, it leads to a small personal experience. It is when, he said, that one is in the presence of something huge.

“Again, it takes the focus away from yourself, promotes your sense of connection, and because awe-inspiring things like starry skies and cathedrals and tall forests are a little hard to grasp intellectually. They open our minds to help – us to make sense of this overwhelming new information.” she said

According to, Marsh is a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience at Georgetown University, where her research aims to answer the questions: How do we understand what others think and feel? What drives us to help others? What prevents us from hurting them? She is an expert in both bravery and fear. Marsh’s research uses functional and structural brain imaging as well as behavioral, cognitive, genetic and pharmacological techniques and includes more than 90 publications in journals including Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature Human Behaviour, American Journal of Psychiatry and JAMA Psychiatry . . She is also the author of The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. When the CBS “60 minutes” devoted a fall 2021 segment to the neuroscience of heroism, Marsh’s research was highlighted.

His research has received awards including the Cozzarelli Award for Scientific Excellence and Originality from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the S&R Kuno Award for Applied Science for the Social Good, and the Richard J. Wyatt Fellowship for Translational Research from the NIMH. She serves on the advisory boards of the National Kidney Donation Organization and 1Day Sooner, and is the co-founder of Psychopathy Is. Marsh received his Ph.D. from Harvard University and conducted his postdoctoral research at the National Institute of Mental Health. She is the former president of the Society of Social and Affective Neuroscience.

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