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46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
Interesting, but somehow oversimplified
on December 7, 2010
This book does an excellent job of describing the brain mechanisms involved in extreme fear, provides numerous anecdotes about occasions on which someone experienced it, and provides a good deal of military lore and experimental evidence about how fear works and what it does and how it can be limited. But I find myself wondering whether it will offer insight or assistance to anyone who may be suddenly confronted with a fear-inducing situation.
There are more variations in human reaction to extreme fear than the author acknowledges. Although I'm not an expert on the topic, I have experienced extreme fear on a few occasions, and have watched others experience it on many more occasions. My personal belief is that aside from the most basic brain-body mechanisms, well described in this book, a person's reaction to an obviously life-threatening situation (or one that seems life-threatening) is largely determined by the whole accumulation of experiences and situations to which the person has been exposed from childhood on. If this is so, it's more than a little difficult to reshape an individual's reactions to such situations, although quite possible to reshape reactions to such specific fears as fear of combat. I have known people who seemed almost immune to fear (although of course they really weren't) and I have known others who yield to fear so readily that one cannot count on them to perform in any dangerous situation. For example, when somebody quite unexpectedly receives a serious electrical shock (1000 to a few thousand volts at high amperage), which I have seen happen perhaps a dozen times, their reactions vary dramatically, from near-complete psychological collapse at one extreme to a few minutes of shaking and cursing, followed by acceptance of treatment and/or return to work. Similarly, I have known people who seem unable to adjust to the unexpected sound of a bullet going close past them, and others who don't even bother to duck when that happens. My belief is that these differences are largely due to a whole lifetime's habituation to hazardous situations, or lack of habituation to them. This does not in any way contradict the author's theses, but it considerably complicates the question of how one can reduce the negative effects many people experience.
Having led small military units and much larger civilian organizations, I have had to develop the leadership skills of keeping people moving forward toward a common objective when they are uncertain, confused, afraid. But for certain people nothing one tries seems to work. This is no criticism of them as people, just a limitation that has to be recognized. And indeed, nobody can cope with a level of fear higher than somewhat for longer than somewhat; even the best-adapted person will break at some point, as the Army has come to recognize. So, when someone would come to me and say, "I can't work for you any longer; it's too stressful for me", I would always say "OK, I understand, I'll get you transferred to a suitable assignment that will be a more pleasant one for you."
Incidentally, although the author correctly notes that fear produces a specific change in human pheromones, he doesn't remark (and perhaps is unaware) that we humans can consciously recognize the smell of fear if we have been exposed to it a few times. I have noticed this most strikingly on the three occasions when I was aboard aircraft that seemed somewhat likely to crash. I could tell by the scent of the people around me who was terrified out of control and who was worried but still in complete control of themselves. This smell of fear is very distinctive, unlike any other smell I know.