Fear and Resilience in Brainwave’s “Capturing Conflict”

In 2011, photojournalist Lynsey Addario was covering the civil war in Libya when her team was “ripped out” of their jeep by Moammar Gadhafi’s troops. After enduring one week of being bound up, tortured, and continually threatened with execution, Addario and her teammates were released. Despite being kidnapped twice (once in Libya, once in Iraq), caught in an ambush in Afghanistan, and witnessing the destitution of famine and war, Addario exhibits not a single trace of trauma. What is it that makes some of us more resilient than others in times of extreme panic or fear?

The event “Capturing Conflict”— part of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series—paired Addario with neuroscientist Glenn Schafe to discuss what happens when our bodies undergo life-threatening anxiety. A psychology professor at Hunter College who specializes in fear, Schafe provided scientific insight on why some people respond to stressful situations with resilience while others exhibit symptoms of trauma.

For “a variety of different species,” it is not uncommon to instinctively stop moving when faced with a dangerous situation, he said. Freezing gives the brain a moment to evaluate the situation and determine how to cope and, ultimately, survive. This reaction, first described by physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon, is commonly referred to as the human “fight-or-flight” response. After Addario took the audience through her recollection of the kidnapping in Libya, we could see how her body’s reaction was purely instinctive:

[I]mmediately we were caught in crossfire, and it was very intense crossfire—there were bullets everywhere…I was terrified, and often in those moments I can’t move my legs…I was immediately taken by one of Gadhafi’s troops, and he was fighting with me to take my bags and my camera, and, irrationally, I was fighting back.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not all that common for people who experience shock or trauma, said Schafe. He explained that “[t]here are telltale signs in the brain…that correlate to pathology, such as a smaller hippocampus or a smaller prefrontal cortex; and that goes hand in hand with the inability to regulate emotions.” The amygdala, a region of the brain that plays a prominent role in expressing fear, is hyper-responsive in people who have PTSD. However, for the most part, resilience is the norm. Schafe went on to note the different pathways that a person is likely to take after a traumatic experience.

Clinical psychologists have identified three trajectories:

  1. Development of post-traumatic stress that becomes chronic and unremitting
  2. Brief period of post-traumatic stress that lasts a week to a month, followed by recovery
  3. No symptoms of post-traumatic stress (majority of people fall into this category)

For someone who has experienced more distress than most of us will witness in a lifetime, Lynsey’s resilience is evidence of her brain’s ability to persevere. Most of her colleagues who cover war continue to do to so, despite the consistent risks that they take for the job. Even though Addario acknowledged that she feels “sort of tortured” when she works, being able to witness history is thrilling.

I don’t know why I go back…I think the work is really important, and I know how to cover war. I’ve been doing it for fifteen years….If I’m not doing it, I feel like I’m not being true to myself…I also think that I have the rare and unique ability to affect policy with very strong images that appear wherever they do; so I think that I have a responsibility to keep going back, and so I do.

This year marks the Rubin Museum’s eighth annual Brainwave series of conversations, films, and experiences revolving around neuroscience. Events continue until April 29; tickets can be purchased at the door or online.

-Seimi Rurup

One response

  1. Reblogged this on A random outlet for my thoughts and commented:
    I went to a talk last week by Professor Andrew Holmes who spoke of PTSD and explained the neural circuits involved (the ventral medial prefrontal cortex and amygdala), and largely focusses on how extinction training can be used on mice for PTSD

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