Learning fear and courage: What Mike Fanning’s story can teach us

Learning fear and courage: What Mike Fanning’s story can teach us

I listen with a detached interest to Mick Fanning depiction of his experience being attacked by a great white on 20 July. What was interesting was what I thought was a textbook demonstration of the idea that we learn fear.

Now I have a bit of a shark phobia (not sure what you call it – is it jawsphobia??) and have an unspoken agreement with the toothy beasties that if I don’t go in their ocean, they won’t come onto the beach. My fear is based on nothing more that the indelible imprinting that was left by watching George Lucas’s JAWs as a child. Every time I enter the sea I hear this music – daaada, daaaada, you know what I mean!.

What does being courageous mean?

Anyhoo, I wondered if this was the first time that Mick Fanning was courageous? I mean courage is feeling fear and doing it anyway right. I suspect part of his success on the big waves in the shark’s playground may owe to his absence of fear – his absolute belief that he’ll be fine. Yesterday tested that and may have provided him with a real sense of his mortality. He may have been as close to death as he has ever been – maybe not. I don’t know him so I am purely speculating.

What I noticed was his first interview he sounded manic, amazed and excited – he was obviously still feeling the effects of the surge of adrenaline that comes with fear and flight – an unconscious response which may well have saved his life. And then in the next interview he was obviously coming down from his adrenaline high and being hit by the enormity of the situation. Through tears he says: “I am happy not even to compete ever again…”. Here was a defining moment in his career which may well result in his not continuing the sport of his passion.

And I felt so sorry for him. While I am no champion, I know what it means to have fear define and limit our ability to pursue the very thing that enlivens us and gives us purpose.  I had a freak horse riding accident a number of years ago that rocked my confidence to the core – to the extent that it took me years to ‘get back in the saddle’ without feeling terrified. I have loved horses since I can remember and after that fall I seriously wondered whether I should even bother again. It took a number of years, but eventually I worked through my fear and am back in the saddle – not without a continuous underlying sense that anything could happen.

How We Learn and Unlearn Fear

What was so interesting about Mick’s interview is what it showed about how we learn fear.

According to Agren et al[1], much of our fear comes from memories of incidents that caused us discomfort, embarrassment, or pain in some way. We learn as a result of forming a long-term memory of something. However, it seems to be a two-step process from when our initial experience forms an unstable memory until it is stabilized and committed to memory, as if it went through another consolidation process. In other words, “we are not remembering what originally happened, but rather what we remembered the last time we thought about what happened.” However, “by disrupting the reconsolidation process that follows upon remembering, we can affect the content of memory.” And this is why they tell you to get straight back on the horse, the bike, or in Fanning’s case, the wave!

Through these two interviews you can track Fanning’s formation of a memory of fear. In the first interview he was clearly still running on adrenaline, he hadn’t had time to process what had happened – he acted appropriately, automatically and that saved his life. Probably after having seen video footage and spoken to others, he realized how close he came to being killed. I wonder how many times he heard how lucky he was. Is there any wonder that his memory of what had happened – of taking action and winning, not luck – was crowded out by a memory of a story of luck. This may well explain his subdued affect when he was interviewed the second time and his claim that he might not continue. And yet, on a rational level the statistics on shark attacks makes this ever happening again exceptionally low! As a pro surfer he would know thee statistics.

That is the real tragedy: A memory a fear undermining his passion and purpose.

I was heartened to hear that he had entered the sea again. I can only imagine the fear he must have felt as he did that, rethinking the events of last week. But that is what courageous people do – they feel their fear and do it anyway.

And that is what you need to do if you are to realise your dreams and passions in life.

Do not live small.

Be brave and follow your dreams.



[1] T. Agren, J. Engman, A. Frick, J. Bjorkstrand, E.-M. Larsson, T. Furmark, M. Fredrikson. Disruption of Reconsolidation Erases a Fear Memory Trace in the Human Amygdala. Science, 2012; 337 (6101): 1550 DOI: 10.1126/science.1223006 accessed on 25July 2015 at: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120920141155.htm