Here’s How You Learn to Be Fearless, You Coward

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Here’s How You Learn to Be Fearless, You Coward

Being a coward has been synonymous with being a chicken since long before Kevin Bacon famously played a game of it on a tractor in Footloose. The earliest reference that covered fear in feathers dates back to John Skelton’s 1529 poem in which he compared royal advisers to weak “hen-hearted cuckolds.” From there, Shakespeare piled on in his 1616 play Cymbeline, equating chickens with soldiers running away from battle. 

It really makes you wonder what all that harmless poultry did to garner such bad press. 

There is, however, some good news out there for the chickens among us — as well as scaredy cats and generally anxious human beings: You may not have to shake in your boots much longer. That’s because fear is something that can be unlearned, according to a not-scary-at-all new study.

After studying mice that lacked a specific serotonin receptor known as 5-HT2CR (aka “knock-out mice”), a team of neurobiology and zoology researchers from the Collaborative Research Centre at Ruhr University in Germany discovered that these mice abandon feelings of fear faster than wild mice. “In the knock-out mice, we first found an increased basal activity in certain serotonin-producing cells of the dorsal raphe nucleus,” study co-author Sandra Süß explained in a press release. “In a subsequent step, we showed that the absence of the receptor also alters neuronal activity in two subnuclei of the BNST, which ultimately supports extinction learning.” 

Extinction learning” is basically how we banish fear from our vocabulary (and heads), typically through gradual exposure to stress.

Obviously, the study wasn’t on humans (or even chickens), but Süß and her colleagues are hopeful their findings will help improve how medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work, particularly when it comes to treating post-traumatic stress disorder and managing fear overall. “Taking these drugs over a prolonged period of time causes the relevant receptor to become less responsive to serotonin, similar to our knock-out model,” Süß explained. “Therefore, we assume that the changes we’ve described could be essential for the positive effect of SSRIs.” 

The hope is that, one day, through gradual exposure and with a little help from medication, you’ll eventually be as brave as a mouse — and if you’ve ever looked one of those rodents in their steely eyes, you know they fear nothing. 

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