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By Polly Morland. Crown. 320 pages. $26
Thursday, August 8, 2013
Toward the beginning of Polly Morland’s “The Society of Timid Souls, or How to Be Brave,” the author recounts an experiment that scientists had concocted to determine neurologic factors of bravery. Volunteers’ heads were placed near a conveyor belt that they could control with a simple stop/start switch. On the conveyor belt would be either a snake or a teddy bear (oh, to read that grant application!). Scientists then observed the brain as it attempted to counter basic evolutionary traits in humans: that is, the desire to avoid danger at all costs.
But, and here is the problem that underscores the theme of Morland’s book, is this truly a test of bravery? For me, placing a snake near my head would not necessarily be something that provokes fear. I would rather not do it for other reasons, not the least of which would be that getting bitten on the head by a snake would be painful and probably terribly inconvenient.
Morland’s desire to figure out what makes people “braver” than others leads her to conduct a series of interviews and explorations, and the reader is provided with the usual examples: natural disaster survivors, police officers attacked in the line of duty, soldiers, matadors, BASE jumpers and performers, among others. There’s little doubt that Morland’s stories are well told and thought-provoking, and she has provided a wonderfully readable narrative, yet the issue is that, in many of the chapters, science, philosophy and psychology tend to take a back seat to the narratives. Unlike Mary Roach, who weaves her own experiences and the experiences of others through a tapestry of science and scientific understanding, Morland is content to place the experiences first and the science second. Morland’s opening focuses on science, but philosophy, psychology and scientific research are sprinkled throughout almost as afterthoughts.
This underscores the issue with the second part of the book’s title, “How to Be Brave.” A reader who picks up this book in an effort to overcome fear of anything will be sorely disappointed. Additionally, those who are looking for readable scientific examinations of the human condition, a la Roach and Sacks, will also be disappointed. Trying to pin down such a nebulous part of the human condition like bravery is admirable, but, alas, also nigh impossible: What is one person’s bravery is another’s survival instinct; what is one person’s bravery is another’s everyday life.
“The Society of Timid Souls, or, How to Be Brave,” though, is well-written and enjoyable, and functions, perhaps, as Morland intended: a work that forces the reader to consider the gray areas of bravery, and, indeed, of humanity itself. The answers, though, remain incomplete.