Reviewed: Eva Holland, Nerve: A Personal Journey through the Science of Fear, Pantera Press
In her 1992 book Science as Salvation, the late philosopher Mary Midgley wrote, ‘The idea that we can reach salvation through science is ancient and powerful.’1 Today medical science continues to be on the ascendant: the human genome has been mapped and the development of personalised medicine is genuinely possible. Amid the rise of pharmacological approaches to treating emotional distress and the positive psychology movement, there has been a proliferation of books invoking science for self-help.
Nerve, by Canadian journalist Eva Holland, is a nuanced addition to this trend. After unexpectedly losing her mother in 2015, Holland embarks on a ‘fear project’, in which she systematically works through the major triggers of fear in her life. She divides fear into three groups: phobias (she is afraid of heights); trauma (she is traumatised after a number of car crashes); and the existential variety (the fear we all have of dying or losing loved ones).
Although the book is peppered with references to extensive travels and outdoor adventures, Holland describes her life as ‘less a pursuit of happiness and more an ongoing, endless duel with fear’. But what is the threshold for addressing a fear? And how desirable is it to live without it? As one researcher reminds Holland, fear can be protective; the purpose of memories that trigger fear is to retain information about threats in our environment. If we tamper with those memories—as some interventions aim to do—does that leave us unduly vulnerable?
The difficulty of separating nature and nurture means it can be difficult to identify the roots of, and to address, particular fears. Holland encounters this dilemma on a personal level and in her conversations with scientists about their research. Holland’s mother, Janet, lost her own mother at a young age. Holland grew up with an acute awareness of Janet’s grief, which gave rise to her own fear of becoming motherless. The evidence is ambivalent on whether there’s a predisposition to phobias at a genetic level. Holland acknowledges she was averse to risk-taking as a child, but it’s impossible to distinguish whether this trait is genetic or environmental; most likely it is both.
There are some cases, however, where biology is clearly at fault. In 2018 leading neuroscientist Barbara K. Lipska wrote The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind, which details the total transformation her personality and emotional life underwent when a melanoma spread to her brain. Holland relates the case of a Parkinson’s patient who experienced a dramatic change in emotions while undergoing treatment using electrical currents that stimulated motor-control areas of her brain stem. This patient did not have any history of mental illness; however, as the current entered her brain, she suddenly became overwhelmed by an acute sense of sadness—a purely physiological reaction.
In other cases, as in Holland’s life, the biological and the social can be difficult to separate. Holland encounters the sad case of S.M., a woman born with a rare genetic disorder that eroded her amygdala, meaning she could not feel fear. S.M. in many ways led an unfortunate life; as her condition also affected her appearance, she was treated poorly by her school peers, leading her to feel ‘unattractive and alienated’. After growing up in poverty, she suffered a number of abusive intimate relationships and several traumatic situations, including having a gun held to her head.
S.M.’s experiences raise the question of the extent to which scientific approaches to fear, and mental health more broadly, are able to address the complex social fabric that characterises human life. Holland frames her book as a personal odyssey towards freeing herself from the paralysing grip of her fears, rather than as an exploration of the broader ideological underpinnings of scientific research. However, she mostly manages to avoid the pitfalls of scientific reductionism, and also demonstrates that some interventions work by intuition as much as by scientific rigour. She tames her car-crash trauma using eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), which involves a psychologist helping a patient reconsolidate their memories of a traumatic event while using rapid eye movements. Although widely used, this intervention is not understood scientifically, and the psychologist relies on guesswork as to which phase of the memory process their patient is experiencing at any point during the exercise.
The role of science in understanding fear has inherent limitations. The Pavlovian-inspired experimentation that dominated the first half of the twentieth century relied on the deliberate induction of fear in human subjects, including Little Albert, a boy who was terrorised into developing a fear of furry objects, including rats, dogs and fur coats. This line of enquiry is now considered unethical—although, as Holland discovers, neuroscientists are still permitted to induce panic attacks by exposing human subjects to oxygen that has higher carbon dioxide content than regular air. The pursuit of clinical research can take on a farcical edge; one researcher Holland encounters, for example, takes sweat samples from skydivers for an experiment investigating whether humans can ‘smell’ fear, because it is one of the only consensual ways extreme fear can be induced.
Eventually Holland reaches a détente with her fears. Having had some success in curbing her anxiety about driving and heights, she also remains attuned to the mysteries of human existence, including luck and intuition. As British writer Maggie O’Farrell writes in her 2017 memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, ‘We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.’2 Some fears we just have to learn to live with. •
Amy Walters is a Canberra-based critic who runs the blog The Armchair Critic. Her reviews have also appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Right Now, the Newtown Review of Books and ArtsHub.
- Mary Midgely, Science as Salvation, Routledge, London, 1992, p. 1.
Maggie O’Farrell, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, Tinder Press, 2017, p. 32.