What Makes Someone Brave?

Does courage live in the heart or the mind? What compels some people to turn toward danger and others to run away? Science writer Jeff Wise investigates.

By Jeff Wise
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine January 2014

Kyle CarpenterMike McGregor
Pictured: Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter
THE FRIENDSHIP FACTOR
Lance Cpl. Kyle Carpenter, a member of a Marine unit defending an Afghan village from a Taliban attack on November 21, 2010, illustrated another, equally powerful but more inherent quality that can drive courage: instinct. When a grenade landed near him, Carpenter reportedly shielded a nearby comrade from the blast.

Read more of his story »

Military psychologists say that the instinct to protect those we love is one of the most powerful forces motivating bravery in combat: soldiers who don’t do it for the medals but simply to defend their buddies. “In that moment, their love of their comrades overcomes any concern for their own well-being,” says West Point psychologist Michael Matthews.

Bravery on the battlefield or elsewhere may come from the release of oxytocin, the hormone that helps cement social ties, including the bond between nursing mothers and their babies. Several experiments have found that oxytocin also seems to reduce feelings of fear. Researcher Peter Kirsch placed test subjects in a brain-scanning machine and showed them fear-arousing images like faces with angry expressions and guns. When he also gave subjects whiffs of oxytocin, their amygdalas showed significantly less activation. So substantial is the hormone’s effect that experts are investigating how to turn oxytocin into a medication, a bravery pill, if you will.

Rhonda CrosswhiteMike McGregor
OUT-OF-BODY EXPERIENCE
When a massive tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma, in May, teacher Rhonda Crosswhite used her body to shield six students in a school bathroom stall as 200 mph winds turned the building into splinters. Crosswhite discovered that she was injured only after her adrenaline wore off. “I had cuts everywhere that I didn’t even realize I had,” she told a reporter.

Read more of her story »

Surprisingly, a state of intense fear can actually facilitate extraordinary acts of bravery because circuitry within the brain triggers the release of the hormone and neurotransmitter noradrenaline, which mimics the effects of amphetamines. Under its influence, a person’s attention focuses, and time seems to slow down. Compounds similar to the active ingredient in codeine dull pain, preventing some people in extreme danger from realizing they’ve broken bones. And cortisol released into the bloodstream spurs the body to mobilize its energy stores so that it can move with otherwise unfeasible speed and strength in the face of danger.

Next: How knowledge makes you brave »