At the end of this story is a test.
But don't worry about the test. Concern yourself instead with a small office lurking deep within the fourth floor of a bland, labyrinthine research building on the Creighton University campus, where fear is on the brain.
This is where professor Laura Bruce works. Bruce, who teaches neuroscience at Creighton, has spent the past several years studying the evolution of fear. She does this by looking at brains. Lots of brains, lots of looking.
She focuses on a region of the brain called the amygdala. She loves the amygdala. In your brain, the amygdala is about the size of a bean. It regulates emotional responses.
When someone sneaks up behind you, it is your amygdala that triggers what feels like an instantaneous decision either to run away or punch that person in the face.
In her research, Bruce is drawing a logical line connecting the way your brain regulates fear in the 21st century with the way the brains of primitive creatures regulated fear many millennia ago. Most recently she's been looking for that connection in a scary place: dead shark brains.
The elephant shark is, in Bruce's words, “a very interesting little shark.” Its genes bear a close resemblance to those of its ancestors, so looking at the brain of an elephant shark is like traveling back in time.
And by traveling back in time through the lens of her microscope, Bruce can detect more evidence that the expression of fear has been conserved in evolution. In other words, that the differences between you and a prehistoric shark are fewer than you might think.
“These emotional behaviors are so elemental to our survival that it seems like they would have evolved really early, even before vertebrates — so, back in starfish, or something like that,” Bruce said. “Even in fruit flies and things like that there should be some sort of element of the amygdala there. I think it's fascinating to see which elements were there and which weren't.”
Her fascination began with the reptile brain, which Bruce studied as a doctoral student at Georgetown University in the 1980s. A decade later, by then employed at Creighton, she and a colleague discovered something unexpected. They found activity in the brains of reptiles (her area of study) and frogs (his) that suggested such animals regulate fear in a way similar to humans.
“It took a couple years to convince ourselves that what we were seeing was really that,” Bruce said, “because it was going against the status quo of what was believed at the time, and you just don't put out a new hypothesis like that without thinking about it a great deal.
“But we had our arguments, so we put it out. It was still very controversial — and it's still controversial.”
There is controversy in fear, in part because it's explorable. Fear is essentially a response to some type of external force, whether a predator or prankster. As a result, it's easier to study than more complicated emotions, such as despair or happiness.
So, fear is on a lot of brains these days. An exhibit currently on display at the Durham Museum covers some of the “science of fear.” A University of Nebraska at Omaha professor, Joe Brown, has given speeches lately on why we fear the things we do — often, the wrong things.
Meanwhile, down the hall from Bruce at Creighton, Deniz Yilmazer-Hanke is studying the role genetics and diseases play in fear. She does this by breeding two types of mice, one fearful and the other relatively fearless, and analyzing the differences in their brain activity.
Yilmazer-Hanke and Bruce both point out that fearlessness is not all its cracked up to be. Fear is a defense mechanism. Fear — and here is where Bruce's research comes back into play — is a reason for species' survival. Fear is good.
And for Bruce it's a source of fun.
“Now I'm working on the shark brain, which nobody's really done, and finding those areas (where fear is expressed) in the shark,” she said. “That's pretty exciting. I'm very excited about that. But I can get into some very strange things.”
Bruce has a strange relationship with fear. When something startles her, she almost immediately thinks about what's really going on in her head.
“I do that with the whole brain,” she said.
She teaches neuroanatomy to Creighton medical students and encourages them to diagnose the brain activity all around them.
“There's a part of the brain that's really important in learning movements, so when you watch the Olympics, what you're really doing is comparing how well trained their cerebellum is,” Bruce said.
“A few muscles help, too, but there's a part of your brain that's really good for memorizing a motor pattern when playing a piano or skiing or something like that. I look at people and I see what parts of their brain are lighting up.”
Bruce likes to play the game with her own students. She likes to show them what fear is.
She tells her students she's going to turn on a fear pathway in their brain. It will be instantaneous. She will say two words, and their minds will literally race. Chemicals in their brains will move like lightning through their nervous systems. Their palms will sweat.
Either word on its own would do nothing. Together, she says, they will produce fear.
The students look at her, doubtful.
She looks back at them, confident.