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The physiology of a hero

What happens to your body when fear strikes?

What makes a hero a hero? Exactly the same thing that makes him a coward. Behavourists call it 'fight or flight'; biologists call it 'sympathetic response'; but to you and me it's known as 'fear'. As Andy McNab said: 'I think people do things because they're trying to get out of a situation... It's a very weird word, heroism.' At times of extreme crisis, the body shuts down all functions that are peripheral to survival, heightening certain sensory perceptions while dulling others, and channelling energy to provide 'superhuman' strength when it's most needed. Arena uncovers the physiology of a hero.

Brain: As soon as danger is detected, the cortex sends an alarm signal to the hypothalmus (behind the eyes), which then passes the message to the pituitary gland (at the base of the brain). The pituitary gland then releases hormones into the bloodstream which, when they reach the adrenal glands (sitting on top of the kidneys), cause adrenaline to be released and pumped around the body. This all happens in a few milliseconds. While the adrenaline acts on the body, the mind concerns itself with immediate action. It becomes excited and hypervigilant, causing 'depersonalisation' (seeing people as cardboard cut-outs) and time distortion (events seem to happen more slowly).

Nostrils: Dilate to allow more air into lungs.

Nipples: Grow erect as a side effect of hair muscles contracting - nothing to do with pyschosexual attraction to danger.

Gut: Peristalsis (movement of food) stops as the enteric nervous system (which regulates the alimentary canal) suppresses digestion until the crisis is over. This causes a feeling of nausea in the stomach.

Muscles: Fill with blood, providing more oxygen and glucose to be converted into energy.

Sphincter: Relaxes in response to the enteric nervous system, causing possible defecation.

Heart: Adrenaline causes both heart rate and blood pressure to increase. This means a greater volume of blood is pumped with each beat, allowing more blood to reach vital muscles and organs and speeding up the removal of waste products (otherwise muscles would cramp due to excess lactic acid). This can cause overstressing and failure - hence the expression 'scared to death'.

Hair: Stands on end as the hair muscles contract. Same reponse as with a cat - makes the body look bigger and therefore more intimidating.

Eyes: Pupils dilate to allow more light in and therefore to enable you to see more clearly.

Mouth: Dries up as the 'fight or flight' instinct supersedes digestion.

Testicles: Contract into the body - an animal reflex that prevents testicles from being torn off when fleeing from danger.


Ears: Become hypersensitive due to the increased bloodflow.

Skin: Blood vessels contract, reducing bloodflow, so more blood can be channelled to the brain, muscles, heart, liver and kidney. Hence the term 'white as a sheet'. Once the crisis is over, the body sweats to cool itself down.


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