What Does Courage Mean?

Courage alone cannot break a world record.  But, it brings out the finest in human qualities. While it enables ordinary people to triumph in a harsh environment, unique and exceptional acts of courage win universal respect. At its highest level, courage is the emotion, which grants extraordinary strength to a person to steadfastly do the right thing in the face of daunting dangers.

Ordinary acts of courage demand a suppression of the fear emotion. Great acts of courage require both a strong will and inherited excellence in the relevant field. A courageous act is initiated by a subconscious emotion.   The emotion improves performance, but can not grant strengths, which exceed an individual's natural capabilities.

  • Courage enables even an ordinary person to persist, unrewarded, while facing hardship, pain, shame, intimidation, certain defeat, or even death.
  • Courage is an emotion, which takes control of human behavior, switching off reactions to fear, pain, shame and even bodily weariness.
  • Courage enables excellence, but does not add brand new talents.
  • Heroic courage stands on the superior talents of the individual.
  • Courage grants a person patience - the quiet voice, which says "I will try again tomorrow."
  • Courageous acts of social, or martial confrontation may not be initiated by the effects of oxytocin.
  • A wise objective is needed for a publicly admired act of courage.
  • An act of courage is a powerful expression of prefrontal will.
  • Great leaders are able to instil courage in their followers.

What Does Courage Mean – The Quality Of Courage
When the right conditions appear, the brain triggers the courage emotion. The individual's objective must be just for an action to be perceived as being courageous. The emotion is strengthened by the possibility of victory. A belief in extraordinary strength also helps. Possession of the physical and mental skills needed to succeed add to the power of courage.

Once triggered, the emotion acts to strengthen will by stilling debilitating fear and by persistently focusing the mind on a positive goal. Courage empowers even ordinary people to persist in their tasks without expecting rewards, while facing hardship, pain, shame, intimidation, certain defeat, or even the threat of death. Exemplary courage enables a person with extraordinary skills to attempt uncommon tasks.

What Does Courage Mean – Emotions Guide Behavior
The courage emotion empowers virtuous behavior. Emotions evolved to control behaviors to meet survival needs. Emotional controls originate from the limbic system as patterns of control impulses. The combinatorial wisdom of the nervous system responds to these impulses by instantly formulating attitudes and modifying behaviors.

Paul Eckman, the famous emotions scientist said "We become aware a quarter, or half second after the emotion begins. I do not choose to have an emotion, to become afraid, or to become angry. I am suddenly angry. I can usually figure out later what someone did that caused the emotion." 
For each recognized situation, the nervous system triggers an emotion, which triggers a particular type of behavior.  Emotions are not a matter of choice.  Courage is also not a matter of choice.

Anger, fear, despair and courage are different emotions. The attitude of anger is indifference to consequences as it lashes out. Fear blinds memories of past successes and compels the individual to withdraw from confrontation. Despair switches off pleasant avenues of thought as it envelops a person in gloom. Courage empowers positive action by switching off reactions to fear, pain, shame and even bodily weariness. When courage takes control, it sets an attitude, which calmly faces fear and disapproval.


What Does Courage Mean – Emotions Cannot Add New Talents
Emotions trigger powerful and virtually instantaneous changes in behavior patterns. If, an average person is suddenly required to walk on a plank a hundred feet above ground, his fear will kick in. Fear will stiffen him into immobility. Even slight movements will appear to be life threatening. Instead of walking, he will desperately want to lie down and grip the plank. That emotion will instantly suppress even his elementary abilities.

Within the blink of an eye, an average person will have lost his normal capacity to walk a few steps on a plank. Effectively, a single emotion will have modified his entire behavior. As against the effects of fear, courage can still the debilitating efforts of fear and enable the person to walk steadily on the plank. But emotions can only modify behavior to reach the best achievable by an individual's inherited talents. Courage will be triggered only if the individual has an adequate sense of balance. Courage cannot add brand new talents.

What Does Courage Mean – Excellence Enables Heroic Courage
Great acts of courage are universally admired. Exemplary actions win the Victoria Cross, the Medal of Honor, or the Profile in Courage Award. Peter Drucker suggested that an individual's area of excellence is his/her ability to do something that others find difficult to do. Great courage stands on excellence.

Excellence in any field builds memories of success and grants inner strength to an individual. A gallant attack against the enemy or the passionate expression of an idea demands the inner confidence that the contemplated action can be executed successfully. For fear to be successfully stilled, the system requires prior experience of success in the field. Exceptional skills are the needed foundations for the activation of heroic courage.

What Does Courage Mean – Switching On Patience
Professor Wolfram Schultz discovered how nature utilizes an intricate neural mechanism to trigger the patience emotion that enables persistent efforts. The emotion makes a person persevere to achieve an objective. To make this happen, the system energizes the forebrain and switches off the emotion of annoyance and anger in the face of setbacks. Schultz discovered that, when a reward is expected, the early reptilian part of the human brain sends dopamine to the forebrain.

Increased dopamine strengthens forebrain activity, bringing clarity to objectives. A person feels more energetic and elated. Heightened prefrontal activity inhibits the amygdala, which triggers fear, anger or despair in the face of provocation. Schultz noted that the system was sensitive to the expected time to be taken to receive the reward. If the reward was not received within this period, the despatch of dopamine stops. Energy disappears and annoyance takes its place. Patience is a system determined attitude. Courage also triggers patience.

What Does Courage Mean – Courage Stills Negativity
An action is seen to be courageous, when it is opposed to “normal” instinctive behavior. Emotions determine behavior beneath conscious levels. The courage emotion mandates behaviors, which far exceed the demands of simple patience. A gallantry award is given to a soldier, who acts against the enemy with intrepidity at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty. In public life, courage is recognized, when people act in accord with their conscience, risking their careers or lives by pursuing a larger vision, in opposition to popular opinion or social pressures.

Emotions act beneath conscious levels and control behavior. A fearful, or despairing approach will compel a person to give up. Evidently, courage acts to still many disabling emotions. Fear, which normally paralyzes a person becomes stilled. Neither is the person diverted from his goal by the expectation of a reward. The weakening effects of public condemnation, intimidation, anticipation of certain defeat, or of physical pain do not deplete the determination of a courageous person. The effect of the courage emotion is to still negativity.


What Does Courage Mean – “The Biology Of Courage”
Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal attributes courageous acts to a sense of social cohesion, empowered by the presence of oxytocin. It is a neurohypophysial hormone, which does act to still some negative emotions. The hypothalamus produces and stores oxytocin in the posterior pituitary gland. It acts on its receptors in numerous regions of the brain to support certain uniquely focused behaviors.

In a TED talk, Kelly McGonigal justified her view with the report of an 8 year survey of people, who had admitted to feeling highly stressed during the previous year. 
The researchers found that, in this group, people who believed that stress was harmful were 43% more likely to die than those who believed that stress was good for them. McGonigal noted that the stress hormone cortisol acts to constrict arteries, leading to heart attacks.

On the other hand, oxytocin, which is also a stress hormone, plays the role of opening up constricted arteries. She suggested that oxytocin, which leads to good feelings while under stress, contributed to their survival. McGonigal suggested that the biology of courage comes from connecting with others. That resilience was created in the body with the belief that stress is good for you.


What Does Courage Mean – Oxytocin & Confrontation
The major effect of oxytocin is to increase empathy, social cohesiveness, warmth and love. There is improved recognition for positive social cues over threatening social cues. But, emotional controls act with incredible precision. The attitudes of warmth and goodwill will not produce fierce responses to the enemy, or bring the disruptive efforts needed to compel social change. The overall effects of the hormone appear to be detached from the demands of gallantry in battle, or of heroic social struggles.

Social or martial confrontation is an essential component of courageous behavior. It is unlikely that the confrontational aspect of courage originates from the effects of oxytocin.
  Many of the numerous known effects of oxytocin have little relationship to courage. Oxytocin receptors are expressed by neurons in many regions, including the amygdala, ventromedial hypothalamus, septum, nucleus accumbens, and brainstem.

The most powerful impact of oxytocin is its direct support of numerous motor functions during child birth. The attitude triggered by oxytocin supports active efforts in the face of extreme pain. Raised levels of oxytocin appear to operate in a feedback loop, which act to stimulate contractions. The mechanisms, which trigger courage may lie in other regions of the brain.


What Does Courage Mean – Purpose & Determination
Great acts of courage are universally admired. For such admiration to be present, the objective of the action needs to be chosen wisely.  This implies that the objective of the action has been selected by the highest level human intelligence, the prefrontal brain. The philosopher Rudolf Steiner suggested that a true expression of will appeared “when conscious awareness was integrated with moral imagination in making decisions.”

A courageous action is an act of virtue, because the most powerful intelligence within the individual believes it to be right, regardless of the opinions of others. It becomes a powerful force, without external coercion in accordance with an individual's ideals or moral outlook.   A courageous action demands conviction and persistence. In the normal course, an individual's conscience as expressed by his prefrontal regions may lack the strength to enforce a decision, because greed, fear, or anger controls the system.


Aquinas holds fortitude or courage as being primarily about endurance, not attack, because it is more difficult to allay fear than to moderate daring. As Schultz noted, when a person expects the reward of meeting his well considered objective, his internal systems still debilitating fear. The courageous person persists in his actions in the face of dangers. Courage becomes the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

What Does Courage Mean – Prefrontal Regions
An act of courage is the choice of a single objective in the face of a bewildering array of choices. It ignores the instinctive impulses of fear, shame and weariness. Despite distractions, the mind returns to the task again and again. This is because the prefrontal brain has focused its attention on a specific goal. The basal ganglia is a basic component of the forebrain which supports the attentional mechanism, where focused attention controls sequences of motor functions or thoughts.

Experimental studies show that the basal ganglia exert an inhibitory influence on a number of motor systems, and that a release of this inhibition permits a specific motor system to become active. The region functions by inhibiting irrelevant motor systems and empower focused actions through increased neural activity in the focused region. It is believed to select one out of
several possible behaviors to execute at a given time. When the prefrontal region becomes strongly convinced, the basal ganglia executes the considered will of the courageous individual. An act of courage is the powerful expression of the prefrontal will.


What Does Courage Mean – The Inculcation of Courage
Great leaders have the ability to imbue their followers with courage. They set the right conditions for the emotion to be triggered. They train them to produce their best. They reassure them, when their actions are successful. They make them believe that they have extraordinary strengths. They convey visions of a just and achievable objective. They convince them that victory lies on their side. The visions of a reward fill their followers with energy and quiet their fears. Across history, heroic leaders have shown that the moral courage of people is more formidable than the arsenals of empires. Courage is the weapon which has won battles across thousands of years of history.

This page was last updated on 18-Sep-2016.



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For my peace of mind, I earmarked 20 minutes for meditation on the terrace. With my eyes closed, I sense my hands on the chair and feel the numbness in my feet.

I feel my breath flowing through my nose, my throat, my chest and my stomach. I can hear the chirping of birds, the phut phut of auto rickshaws, the occasional roar of a truck and the insistent hooting of horns.

When I open my eyes, I see a pale moon over two hundred thousand miles away. I see the nuclear fires, blazing for millions of years in the pale globe of the setting sun. A star millions of miles away in space.

I can see green shoots coming up on a tree, watch the dives and swoops of birds, the great circles of the hawks and flocks of birds flying home for the night.

Diffused light from the sun reflects off a parrot on the tree and enters my eye through a pinhole opening. I sense the bustling mood of the bird, even though it is smaller than a drop of water in my eyes.

All these things are seen and felt by me in a few brief minutes. In the distance, is the head of a man seeming to be no bigger than a pea. Yet, that head too sees and feels such things. Ten million people in this great city see and feel in ten million ways.

My mind wanders to a misty view of postwar London; an exciting glimpse of Disneyland. An awed view of Tiananmen Square. The looming Himalayan ranges. My mind takes me to distant galaxies.

It carries me into the heart of millions of invisible neurons, where electrical charges flash thousands of times a second powering my contemplation. I see the campaigns of Julius Caesar and Alexander. I feel the longings of Jehangir.

Already my mind has taken me to palaces, battlefields and even the stars. And yet, the 20 minutes hang heavily on me. If I lost everything, but can just see and feel, in just a few brief minutes, my mind can travel the world, or imagine the cosmos.

Life has already blessed me with over twenty million waking minutes. I have an infinity of time on my hands. Have I a right to expect more from life?

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