What fear can teach us | Karen Thompson Walker
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What fear can teach us | Karen Thompson Walker


Translator: Morton Bast
Reviewer: Thu-Huong Ha One day in 1819, 3,000 miles off the coast of Chile, in one of the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean, 20 American sailors watched their ship flood with seawater. They’d been struck by a sperm whale, which had ripped a catastrophic hole in the ship’s hull. As their ship began to sink beneath the swells, the men huddled together in three small whaleboats. These men were 10,000 miles from home, more than 1,000 miles from the nearest scrap of land. In their small boats, they carried only rudimentary navigational equipment and limited supplies of food and water. These were the men of the whaleship Essex, whose story would later inspire parts of “Moby Dick.” Even in today’s world, their situation would be really dire, but think about how much worse it would have been then. No one on land had any idea that anything had gone wrong. No search party was coming to look for these men. So most of us have never experienced a situation as frightening as the one in which these sailors found themselves, but we all know what it’s like to be afraid. We know how fear feels, but I’m not sure we spend enough time thinking about what our fears mean. As we grow up, we’re often encouraged to think of fear as a weakness, just another childish thing to discard like baby teeth or roller skates. And I think it’s no accident that we think this way. Neuroscientists have actually shown that human beings are hard-wired to be optimists. So maybe that’s why we think of fear, sometimes, as a danger in and of itself. “Don’t worry,” we like to say to one another. “Don’t panic.” In English, fear is something we conquer. It’s something we fight. It’s something we overcome. But what if we looked at fear in a fresh way? What if we thought of fear as an amazing act of the imagination, something that can be as profound and insightful as storytelling itself? It’s easiest to see this link between fear and the imagination in young children, whose fears are often extraordinarily vivid. When I was a child, I lived in California, which is, you know, mostly a very nice place to live, but for me as a child, California could also be a little scary. I remember how frightening it was to see the chandelier that hung above our dining table swing back and forth during every minor earthquake, and I sometimes couldn’t sleep at night, terrified that the Big One might strike while we were sleeping. And what we say about kids who have fears like that is that they have a vivid imagination. But at a certain point, most of us learn to leave these kinds of visions behind and grow up. We learn that there are no monsters hiding under the bed, and not every earthquake brings buildings down. But maybe it’s no coincidence that some of our most creative minds fail to leave these kinds of fears behind as adults. The same incredible imaginations that produced “The Origin of Species,” “Jane Eyre” and “The Remembrance of Things Past,” also generated intense worries that haunted the adult lives of Charles Darwin, Charlotte BrontĂŤ and Marcel Proust. So the question is, what can the rest of us learn about fear from visionaries and young children? Well let’s return to the year 1819 for a moment, to the situation facing the crew of the whaleship Essex. Let’s take a look at the fears that their imaginations were generating as they drifted in the middle of the Pacific. Twenty-four hours had now passed since the capsizing of the ship. The time had come for the men to make a plan, but they had very few options. In his fascinating account of the disaster, Nathaniel Philbrick wrote that these men were just about as far from land as it was possible to be anywhere on Earth. The men knew that the nearest islands they could reach were the Marquesas Islands, 1,200 miles away. But they’d heard some frightening rumors. They’d been told that these islands, and several others nearby, were populated by cannibals. So the men pictured coming ashore only to be murdered and eaten for dinner. Another possible destination was Hawaii, but given the season, the captain was afraid they’d be struck by severe storms. Now the last option was the longest, and the most difficult: to sail 1,500 miles due south in hopes of reaching a certain band of winds that could eventually push them toward the coast of South America. But they knew that the sheer length of this journey would stretch their supplies of food and water. To be eaten by cannibals, to be battered by storms, to starve to death before reaching land. These were the fears that danced in the imaginations of these poor men, and as it turned out, the fear they chose to listen to would govern whether they lived or died. Now we might just as easily call these fears by a different name. What if instead of calling them fears, we called them stories? Because that’s really what fear is, if you think about it. It’s a kind of unintentional storytelling that we are all born knowing how to do. And fears and storytelling have the same components. They have the same architecture. Like all stories, fears have characters. In our fears, the characters are us. Fears also have plots. They have beginnings and middles and ends. You board the plane. The plane takes off. The engine fails. Our fears also tend to contain imagery that can be every bit as vivid as what you might find in the pages of a novel. Picture a cannibal, human teeth sinking into human skin, human flesh roasting over a fire. Fears also have suspense. If I’ve done my job as a storyteller today, you should be wondering what happened to the men of the whaleship Essex. Our fears provoke in us a very similar form of suspense. Just like all great stories, our fears focus our attention on a question that is as important in life as it is in literature: What will happen next? In other words, our fears make us think about the future. And humans, by the way, are the only creatures capable of thinking about the future in this way, of projecting ourselves forward in time, and this mental time travel is just one more thing that fears have in common with storytelling. As a writer, I can tell you that a big part of writing fiction is learning to predict how one event in a story will affect all the other events, and fear works in that same way. In fear, just like in fiction, one thing always leads to another. When I was writing my first novel, “The Age Of Miracles,” I spent months trying to figure out what would happen if the rotation of the Earth suddenly began to slow down. What would happen to our days? What would happen to our crops? What would happen to our minds? And then it was only later that I realized how very similar these questions were to the ones I used to ask myself as a child frightened in the night. If an earthquake strikes tonight, I used to worry, what will happen to our house? What will happen to my family? And the answer to those questions always took the form of a story. So if we think of our fears as more than just fears but as stories, we should think of ourselves as the authors of those stories. But just as importantly, we need to think of ourselves as the readers of our fears, and how we choose to read our fears can have a profound effect on our lives. Now, some of us naturally read our fears more closely than others. I read about a study recently of successful entrepreneurs, and the author found that these people shared a habit that he called “productive paranoia,” which meant that these people, instead of dismissing their fears, these people read them closely, they studied them, and then they translated that fear into preparation and action. So that way, if their worst fears came true, their businesses were ready. And sometimes, of course, our worst fears do come true. That’s one of the things that is so extraordinary about fear. Once in a while, our fears can predict the future. But we can’t possibly prepare for all of the fears that our imaginations concoct. So how can we tell the difference between the fears worth listening to and all the others? I think the end of the story of the whaleship Essex offers an illuminating, if tragic, example. After much deliberation, the men finally made a decision. Terrified of cannibals, they decided to forgo the closest islands and instead embarked on the longer and much more difficult route to South America. After more than two months at sea, the men ran out of food as they knew they might, and they were still quite far from land. When the last of the survivors were finally picked up by two passing ships, less than half of the men were left alive, and some of them had resorted to their own form of cannibalism. Herman Melville, who used this story as research for “Moby Dick,” wrote years later, and from dry land, quote, “All the sufferings of these miserable men of the Essex might in all human probability have been avoided had they, immediately after leaving the wreck, steered straight for Tahiti. But,” as Melville put it, “they dreaded cannibals.” So the question is, why did these men dread cannibals so much more than the extreme likelihood of starvation? Why were they swayed by one story so much more than the other? Looked at from this angle, theirs becomes a story about reading. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov said that the best reader has a combination of two very different temperaments, the artistic and the scientific. A good reader has an artist’s passion, a willingness to get caught up in the story, but just as importantly, the readers also needs the coolness of judgment of a scientist, which acts to temper and complicate the reader’s intuitive reactions to the story. As we’ve seen, the men of the Essex had no trouble with the artistic part. They dreamed up a variety of horrifying scenarios. The problem was that they listened to the wrong story. Of all the narratives their fears wrote, they responded only to the most lurid, the most vivid, the one that was easiest for their imaginations to picture: cannibals. But perhaps if they’d been able to read their fears more like a scientist, with more coolness of judgment, they would have listened instead to the less violent but the more likely tale, the story of starvation, and headed for Tahiti, just as Melville’s sad commentary suggests. And maybe if we all tried to read our fears, we too would be less often swayed by the most salacious among them. Maybe then we’d spend less time worrying about serial killers and plane crashes, and more time concerned with the subtler and slower disasters we face: the silent buildup of plaque in our arteries, the gradual changes in our climate. Just as the most nuanced stories in literature are often the richest, so too might our subtlest fears be the truest. Read in the right way, our fears are an amazing gift of the imagination, a kind of everyday clairvoyance, a way of glimpsing what might be the future when there’s still time to influence how that future will play out. Properly read, our fears can offer us something as precious as our favorite works of literature: a little wisdom, a bit of insight and a version of that most elusive thing — the truth. Thank you. (Applause)

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100 thoughts on “What fear can teach us | Karen Thompson Walker

  1. No physicist would say 'any affirmative thought is creating a magnetic brain frequency due to law of attraction, therefore dooming your own fate.' – There's no such thing as a 'magnetic brain frequency' and fate conceived as some force guiding a person's life is nonsensical.

  2. Agreed. She has no idea what she is talking about. She ased her entire 'idea' of what frea can teach us from some point of view that she has never expierience a fight or flight situation. She aparently did not do her reseach in the actual field of neurscience at all. Thank you for pointing this out. Fear has nothing to do with imagination. It is all about survival.

  3. "If we can determine the probability that a certain event will occur, we can make a better choice about whether to risk the odds." If the sailors weighed the odds, they would have taken the chance to reach the islands and face the possibility of cannibalism.

  4. I think a ship full of sailors would stand a good chance against a tribe of cannibals. Sailors are usually strong, armed and work well as a team. Curious that point didn't come up.

  5. Just another (rare) pointless TED talk. I thought TED was supposed to be for people who've actually accomplished something in their lives, added to the human store of knowledge. We know the biological purpose of fear, and its chemical mechanism of action. We know that human AREN'T the only animals that look into the future, and that's only one reason why I think this woman is up there only making people stupider.

  6. Fear? Bravery? Tragic? Read the account of Ernest Shackleton's doomed expedition to the Antarctic 1912, marooned on ice for two years & a desperate escape to S Georgia which took many more months. Shackleton got every member of the expedition came back alive 1916, not greeted as heroes, but sent to the WW1 trenches. Half of them were dead within 6 weeks.

  7. Agreed. A writer/novelist, who spends her life making stuff up??? Go travel the world lady, go into a black/hispanic neighbourhood after dark, you'll soon find out what fear is all about.

  8. Yes! But hopefully some people will start working out the difference between the gems & the piffle, erudite discourse or just plain regular bullshit.

  9. I think their survival chances were quite good, there wouldn't have been much meat on them after several months at sea.

  10. Karen, that is a great and meaningful story about stories! A pity that you diminished the power of the ending a bit by hurrying to the end, in stead of slowing down and pausing for emphasis toward the end. Let it sink in. The 'thank you' at the end was an unnecessary crutch to indicate the end. It distracts from what is already that most elusive thing at the end, the truth :~) I really love this story though.

  11. Hi all! Have you ever heard about the Rapid Cash Fortune? I found out it on Google Search and read quite a few awesome stuff about it. Some of my friend also strongly recommend me to try it

  12. nah, it's not just yours…I think it was the lighting on stage….she looks really washed out and needed makeup for the lights.

  13. There are different forms of "fear"….and not all are survival based. Biologically, "fear" may be defined in a certain way but "fear" in a pyschological sense can manifest in other ways.

  14. Wow… People really don't get that she's not talking about fear as the Amigdola thinks of it but how we think of it as humans. The fear of rejection is not a fight or flight, it's a dreading of what we imagine to be coming. This talk isn't for science or politics but more for philosophy and creativity. You know, the thing she does for a living as a novelist? She's accomplished, proven her worth in her field. Just because her field isn't science doesn't make it pointless.

  15. A flaw in your argument is the very fact that you used the word, "were." This implies that there is also a chance that there are no cannibals, as that was just a rumor. Agreeing with McConnel, the sailors can fight back and gain a better chance of survival there. With the path that the sailors took, they knew that rations would have to be stretched beyond the possible, meaning that some people would have to die anyways. Individually, a sailor's odds to live would be better facing the cannibals.

  16. She is terrified.. Truth is not elusive it is Everywhere and everything. The speaker is the truth but has a notion she is looking for it ! Subtle point we all overlook.

  17. Uh huh, so she probably went to a private liberal arts college, I see. That's all I'm getting from this talk. Shit-ton of pseudo-intellectuals on this page.

  18. I hate to be so superficial, but i have to say I agree…it's as if she's trying to speak at a lower octave so that her California accent doesn't make her sound stupid. (Not that I think she is, at all, but the California accent is pretty ridiculous)…either that or she is almost overwhelmingly nervous. I'm trying to listen past it, but it is very distracting.

  19. Loved this talk! Her assessment of fear is spot on. My only critique is, she engaged in the exact fallacy that the sailors did. She ignored the tyranny of the state as a clear and present danger to humanity. The state that controls the media to create the story has historically and repeatedly shown it's propensity for destruction yet she never mentions it. But does climate change, the thing the human population has least control. Where as the state could disappear tomorrow if the people awoke.

  20. I was on "TasteKid.com" and I saw F.E.A.R. as a recommended game on the site, so when I clicked to see the trailer I got this video. Haha what the hell?

  21. I'm sure it's nerves. There is an over modulation in her voice (shakiness).
    At least she didn't do the upward intonation at the end of each sentence like some do. That just makes everything sound like a question. I'm sure this was a huge deal for her.

  22. Why did she put Origin of Species in the same group as Jane Eyre? Only one is fiction. Good talk; this one thing was just a little off-putting.

  23. I don't believe it's good at all. I do agree on the use of it to empower growth or change towards a fearless momentum.

  24. Lesson: Accept your fear as a story, and not a guide to control your actions. You are the reader of that story, but you use your logic (the inner scientist) to make the decisions.
    Shaboom.

  25. I like what you've said here… however, I don't think fear is something you can 'read'… fear happens as a reaction to something your mind is not prepared to overcome, like danger, jumping off a plane etc.

  26. I would like that 11 minutes of my life back. Awful delivery in her presentation, she should stick to print and stay away from public speaking, not her strong suite.

  27. Yes. That is if you trust 2000 year-old scrolls written 30 years after Jesus' death by a man representing a group that wanted to change the world

  28. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
    ― Frank Herbert, Dune

  29. I am just not afraid of anything because I don't see the point , I mean the worst thing a person can do to me is torture , rape me and my family then kill me and that's not the worst thing that can happen , I would be much more afraid of an afterlife with a cosmic Saddam Hussein

  30. TED is too good and she spoke very well..

    With the help of android app "Talks on Killing Fears" by lokesh , I got some great knowledge on fears too.

    i think we should keep understanding fear more and more

  31. to understand fear U my friend need to watch J. Krishnamurthy – Fear. The video's on you tube. You wont need anymore explanation about it then.

  32. The men of the Essex did not "know" about nearby islands. They were religious fundamentalists, Quakers who while they have done much good work in our society, at that time could not accept the seafaring knowledge based on the wider world about the islands and populations around them, because that knowledge base came from what they regarded as heathans such as the British It would take an encyclopedia to cover all the historic and sailing errors in this presentation. If the speaker ever reads these commentaries, I have two dingies and a Great Lake close at hand, and I will gladly risk my survival in hurricane force winds if she will join me in an acquaintance experience with the world she presumes to explain.

  33. Fear: see my video upload on this…if you want…. after watching this of course, and check out my other videos on life/depression, random thoughs, Thanks 🙂

  34. I usually love the TED talks but this one of the worst I have ever encountered 🙁 Terrible anecdotes that cannot possibly relate into most peoples lives as most people do not find themselves in such harrowing situations. Shame….

  35. Spoiler : You ll fear, its natural but what steps do you choose because of the fear .Do you take a thoughtful route or a less thoughtul more instinctive perhapse route.
    TY

  36. I thought fear is my strongest weapon against many exams during my undergraduate course. This video explains the mechanism I have been using. 🙂

  37. define irony 20 men decide to stay adrift for months and risk starvation because they fear cannibals and in so doing become what they fear

  38. I totally fear the plaque in my arteries more than serial killers. Those are easy statistics. but some fears are still hard to deal with

  39. I shape the destinies of Nations
    I breed Hate and Bitterness
    I spread the rumour and it grows
    Helped by radio and press
    I speed the wheels of Industry
    In the race of armament
    I sow the blood red seeds of War
    Of greed and discontent
    I march in the ranks of all men
    From the vanguard to the rear.
    A shadowy wrecker of unity,
    I am fear!

  40. This Ted Talk is among some of the least effective Talks TED has presented. All of her evidence to prove her point was just anecdotal, which is the least effective form of evidence. I'm not saying anecdotes are totally bad, but if you continually use them as your exclusive evidence, then it shows that you probably don't know anything about your topic. Also, it should be noted that her historical evidence isn't correct because she failed to analyze the historical context, weakening her point even more. No proof means she just blew eleven minutes making claims and providing no evidence.

  41. I'm reading her novel "The Age of Miracles."

    I read a lot, and it takes a lot to keep me interested in where a writer wants to take me and to visualize and remember and care.

    The fact that I love "The Age of Miracles" for its easy flow, sharp situational awareness, and unpretentious style is unusual.

    I mostly steer clear of new novelists. I'm a classics snob.

    So this is indeed a miracle.

  42. Fear can be balanced with the help of the following three: Knowledge, Exposure and Focus. Fear in some amount is essential for our survival, but too much of it can stop our growth in life. Source: https://goo.gl/K1EEza

  43. Dont write your life story with something as unappealing as fear. Fear is our concept of an imminant danger that we think we cant beat. That fear causes us to avoid the danger (in mind and body) instead of understanding and facing the danger. Dont live in fear and dont write your story in fear. I think of fear as the death to a life, how much life have you felt in your mode of fear. Fear can be our only fear and danger is only dangerous if we wont live to actively seek a way to overcome it. Ive never felt more alive when fighting the dangers of my life and thats why im tored of fear and i seek to never die in it again.

  44. The main problem with this is she has done nothing! She has no personal experience to base her knowledge on anymore than I can tell Neil Armstrong how he felt as the first man on the moon. Lady, do something other than read a book before you pretend to be an expert!

  45. Ideas matter, and this is the lesson we should take from this objectively horrible talk. I’m disappointed in the ideas themselves, not the author. I believe that she is qualified to teach about the topic. However, the fact is that the topic requires an IQ of 80 and is mediocre, not to mention intellectually bankrupt

  46. I reached into my bag of chocolate chip cookies while watching this, petrified by the thought that I may have eaten my last.
    What should I do? My mind raced with the dreaded choices: whom should I kill and roast? My cat or my dog?
    Just when the nightmare was darkest, my hand broke through the plastic seal into ANOTHER sealed bag that I had completely forgotten about.
    The second sealed bag contained over six dozen more chocolate chip cookies. My hunger satisfied, my ordeal over,
    I set myself upon the task of recording my adventure for future generations (your kids, not mine: I don't "do" kids) so that my story may teach youth
    to ALWAYS buy that second bag of chocolate chip cookies whenever in doubt at the dollar store.

  47. Watching this because I’m not going to read this long as speech and the questions for it are due in a few minutes

  48. I always thought of fear like the stronger fear is the most immediate. A threat now, since the brain cannot think in long term – but this is an other approach telling us that stronger fear is the fear that we can imagine the most vivid. Interesting.

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