Michelle Pitcher I have a distinct memory of a time. It was a beautiful day in San Francisco. No fog in sight. And we were at Dolores Park just kind of hanging out, playing some games, tossing a Frisbee. And we decided that we wanted to go grab a beer at a brewery that was maybe a mile away. And all my friends obviously knew how to ride bikes. They were bona fide San Franciscans.
They had the apps on their phones to rent the bikes. And I was the single holdout to be like, “I’m so sorry. I simply cannot join you on that particular outing. I do want a beer. I will meet you there.” I was the squeaky wheel, to use a bike pun. I was the one in the group who kind of made things harder for the group, which didn’t feel great. And I would love to not have to experience that again.
Dacher Keltner A lot has changed since those days in San Francisco for Michelle Pitcher. She became a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, and she moved back to Texas, where she grew up. But Michelle realized there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: she never learned how to ride a bike.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to The Science of Happiness. Michelle joins us today after trying a practice to overcome her fear of bikes. For our show, she took to two wheels for the first time since her last serious bike-riding attempt in the third grade.
Later in the show, we’ll explore what happens when we form memories while afraid, and what we can do to lessen our fears.
Daniela Schiller We created a situation where you have a fear memory in the lab—it’s like a manufactured fear. So what we did is extinguished that fear response.
Dacher Keltner More, after this break.
Michelle Pitcher is a 27-year-old journalist who never learned how to ride a bike. She joins us today after trying a practice to help her overcome her fears and conquer that daunting task as an adult. Michelle, thanks for coming on our show.
Michelle Pitcher Thank you for having me.
Dacher Keltner And giving bike riding a shot again.
Michelle Pitcher It was no small feat. It’s always been just kind of a shtick that, “Oh, Michelle doesn’t know how to ride a bike.”
Dacher Keltner And what do you say about that shtick? Like, is it a comedy routine or…
Michelle Pitcher It’s a comedy routine until my friends in San Francisco wanted to rent bikes to go somewhere and I made them walk or Uber so. I also think that part of the fear I have is fear of embarrassment, a little bit. There’s something about, you know, a 27 year old wiping out on a bike that I can’t say I wouldn’t laugh at.
Dacher Keltner What kept you from getting back on the bike, living in places like the Bay Area and Austin that have so much bike riding?
Michelle Pitcher One thing about Texas is you can see the sky from basically Oklahoma down to the southern border. It’s pretty darn flat—some areas of hills—but I think the loss of control of, you know, riding down a hill is really where I start to get the sweats.
Dacher Keltner What do you think’s gonna happen?
Michelle Pitcher I think I’m gonna—I’m gonna crash and burn. You know, I understand fundamentally that if I wipe out, I’ll be wearing a helmet, of course, kneepads and elbow pads if I got them. But, I just—I can’t shake that. It’s like a primal fear of losing control.
Dacher Keltner And we all have our own versions. So, tell us about the Overcoming a Fear practice. You start with a small dose of what you’re scared of in a safe environment, and then you kind of build up over time, increasing things that you’re frightened of, right? So if you’re scared of heights, you hike up to a hill, and you hike up to a larger hill, and you scale up to Yosemite Valley and look out 3,000 feet down. So how’d you deal with the bike?
Michelle Pitcher So, we went to a parking lot at an elementary school. I had recorded myself for posterity and also for you all.
Michelle So, we are in a parking lot. I’m here with my sister, Amanda.
Michelle Pitcher Nicely newly paved, with the ever so slightest downhill grade.
Dacher Keltner Did you measure it?
Michelle Pitcher Yeah. I rolled a water bottle down, saw how fast it accelerated. But, my sister and brother in law, Amanda and Eric, were there to help me.
Amanda Can you tell me a little bit about what you are excited about and what you’re maybe a little fearful about?
Michelle I’m scared of falling, excited about the idea of being able to stop without falling. But, I want to start off by watching you guys for a little bit.
Amanda Yeah no problem.
Dacher Keltner Simply watching someone ride a bike until your nerves aren’t shot from just watching them—that’s a great first step.
Michelle Pitcher Amanda was riding slowly and like showing me how to stop, how to get on. I stood on the bike and practiced the brakes. Just all the things that you would—basically picture the scene in any TV show where a kid is learning how to ride a bike. We did all that.
Dacher Keltner And then what was it like for you, as you got on the seat? What happened?
Michelle Pitcher I fell. I fell almost immediately.
Amanda That’s okay.
Michelle Okay. So what just happened is I fell off and got tangled in the bike.
Amanda You learned something so we’re going to try that again.
Michelle Pitcher My sister is a tiny bit taller than me. I just, I didn’t have the bodily confidence to just put my foot down and stop myself from falling. So I kind of did a comedic like, oh, wobble back and forth. But, I fell before I even started moving. But what happened was I realized because I was with my sister and my brother in law and I felt comfortable and, you know, there’s a certain element of silliness that you have to let yourself, you know, experience when you’re trying to overcome a fear. I didn’t want to make it too serious, so I was laughing as I fell, which felt really good. It felt cathartic. But, yeah, I sat on the seat and immediately lost control and fell.
Dacher Keltner So the idea of this Overcoming a Fear practice is that you get comfortable, as you said you were, and then slowly, increase your exposure to whatever it is you’re afraid of. What did you do next?
Michelle Pitcher The next phase of the practice, I guess, was motion.
Amanda How’s that feel?
Michelle I’m good. Is Something happening?
Amanda No. I’m going to let go.
Amanda You said you’re good. Okay, we’re going to go.
Michelle Well, how do I go?
Amanda Push forward on this leg. Yeah.
Michelle Thank you.
Amanda You’re doing it.
Michelle Amanda’s holding onto me.
Amanda How are you feeling?
Michelle Very good. I want you to hold it for the rest of my life.
Amanda Honestly, that was good.
Dacher Keltner You had a good support team there, for that first bike ride.
Michelle Pitcher I did. I did.
Dacher Keltner You know when we feel fear, the amygdala is activated, hormones like cortisol are released, your heart rate goes up, blood flows to particular limbs and there’s vasoconstriction, your breath gets shallow and faster. How are you feeling at this point in the practice?
Michelle Pitcher There was a moment where my feet weren’t on the pedals. I was sitting on the seat and I was like, “Oh, no, I’m falling.” There’s just nothing I can do to stop this. I couldn’t tell my feet to go down. I couldn’t tell my mouth to say, “Amanda, please keep me from falling.”
Dacher Keltner Oh no, you were frozen.
I was frozen. And so, there was that moment of feeling like I didn’t have any control over my body. But, the deep breathing exercises I was doing without realizing were almost comical.
Dacher Keltner How’d they go?
Michelle Pitcher I kind of sounded like I was giving birth in a sitcom. I was trying to keep myself so calm because the moments that I started to lose that moment of calmness were the moments where I started to lose control over my hands and feet.
Michelle For some reason, my heart rate’s way up.
Amanda Okay, just take a breath. That was good.
Michelle Thank you.
Amanda That was good. Let’s try again.
Michelle Pitcher I was having to really do a lot of deep breathing. And then, that moment at the end when I ended up falling off because I was so overwhelmed by the fact that I had done it. But, it was a falling off while I dismounted so it was totally fine. But I stood up and I was shaking, my hands were shaking, my breath was shaky. And that was a moment where I really realized like, this wasn’t a silly, like—this wasn’t a joke.
I was terrified. And so my body reflected it. But there were also times when I was able to take control over what my body was doing and recognize that if I was shaking, I wouldn’t have control over the bike and things like that. So, being able to kind of clock that in the moment and remember that my mind controls my body even when I don’t think it does, was really helpful.
Michelle Oh, sorry. Panic! Panic set in.
Amanda It’s okay.
Michelle I’m picking up too much speed, Amanda!
Amanda No you’re not. You’re barely moving.
Dacher Keltner I mean, it’s so evocative because I think a lot of our listeners will probably have pretty distinct memories of that first bike ride. I remember, I was six and just like your sister, my dad was holding the seat and he let me go, and I wiped out. And then the second time, it just felt—I think it’s one of the freest feelings I’ve ever had riding down that Cobalt Ave. in Sylmar, California. What did it feel like for you as you started to gain control in that bike riding?
Michelle Pitcher There was that movie moment when she first let go and I didn’t immediately topple over. I felt amazing. It was like an immediate endorphin rush. I was really proud of myself. I was also terrified because I realized that my fate was now in my hands. So, I think I rode free and clear for probably 10 to 20 feet, if we’re honest. And then I used the handbrakes because I got a little scared and I wanted to do it more step by step. So, we did her holding me, and then we did me free and clear in a straight line, we did a couple of me turning.
Michelle Okay, so, I’m gonna start here. Kick off.
Michelle And I’m turning, kinda. And I’m doing it. And I’m doing it! I’m braking. I’m braking.
Amanda You did it! Let’s try again.
Michelle Pitcher This could have ended in tears, but it was very successful, in my opinion. I know that there will be a certain point at which I’m confident enough in my ability that a new type of obstacle won’t scare me nearly as much, like the amount of fear will diminish with each new thing I learn. But I’m still beginning. I’m still at the start. But I think, if I’m able to do that, the next thing won’t seem as scary, even though it’s objectively harder or longer. It’ll be scary until it isn’t. And I just have to remind myself that one day it won’t be as scary.
Dacher Keltner Well, Michelle Pitcher, thank you so much for getting back up on the bike and overcoming a fear and being on our show. It’s been really illuminating. Thanks so much.
Michelle Pitcher Thank you so much for having me. It’s been fun.
Daniela Schiller When we feel something, it tends to determine our actions: what we’re going to do. So if you’re dominated by your feelings, it’s very limiting.
Dacher Keltner More on the science of fear, up next.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness. I’m Dacher Keltner.
We’ve been talking about our fears today, and how to overcome them.
And I want to note upfront that fear is totally natural and normal—it’s part of our evolutionary design. We all feel it, and it can actually be a good thing. We need fear for survival. It makes us alert when we need to be, and it gets us ready to take action if our safety is actually being threatened.
It’s just that sometimes, and for many of us often, we feel fear when we’re actually safe. And it can stop us from doing what we really want to do.
That feeling Michelle described of her heart racing and her hands shaking when she faced her fear of riding a bike—it’s something we can all relate to. For me, that sense of fear used arises often when I fly. And even though my logical mind knows I’m safer on a plane than biking around Berkeley, it still costs me.
Daniela Schiller Fear memories, when they are formed, are very persistent. When you learn that something is scary, it will take you a while to unlearn that.
Dacher Keltner Daniela Schiller is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City.
She wanted to see if she could change people’s memories of something that scared them, to help them not be afraid. So she brought 65 people to her lab.
Daniela Schiller So day one, you sit in front of a computer. I hook you up into electrodes that measure your sweat response. If you’re feeling more like an arousal or threat response, your sweat glands are going to get activated and I can measure that.
Dacher Keltner Meanwhile, participants saw squares of different colors flash across the screen one at a time, in random order.
Daniela Schiller But what happens is that throughout this presentation, you’re also getting electric shocks to your wrist. It’s supposed to be unpleasant.
Dacher Keltner Daniela would only shock the participants when they saw a blue square.
Daniela Schiller So what happens is, you start responding to the blue squares themselves, not the shock. So even before you get the shock, you’ve developed this fear response to the squares themselves.
Dacher Keltner They had formed a fear memory. Connections between certain neurons had strengthened in their brains. So, they now linked seeing the blue square with feeling that unpleasant shock.
Daniela Schiller And then, the memory is stored. When we retrieve it, we used to think that we retrieve each time the same memory, and it’s unchanged. But when you retrieve the memory, it could become unstable again, as if it’s a new event and then it has to be stored again. So day two, everybody that comes back to the lab—what they see is one presentation of the Blue Square but you don’t get the shock.
Dacher Keltner Still, seeing the square activated a sweat response, which meant they still had that fearful association.
Daniela Schiller What it does is just triggers the memory. When you see the Blue Square, it’s like, “Oh, okay, I’m going to get a shock.”
Dacher Keltner Daniela’s work is based on the theory that bringing a memory to the surface like this is sort of like pulling a file out of a cabinet. Now that it’s out, we can add new information to it.
Daniela Schiller And it has to be stored again back into that stable state. So as long as this is in this unstable state, things can happen to that memory.
Dacher Keltner Memories can become unstable when they evoke strong feelings, like fear. And if we give ourselves just a little bit of time, we can update the memory before putting it back into storage.
Next, Daniela split the participants into groups. She had the first group wait ten minutes before showing them the squares again.
Daniela Schiller So after that little break, the memory is going to be destabilized and kind of open to retrieving or incorporating new information. So, we will show the blue square again, again, again. What you know now is that the blue square is safe.
Dacher Keltner But the memory won’t stay in that changeable state forever.
Daniela Schiller After 6 hours, the memory is stable again and not prone to interference.
Dacher Keltner Six hours is how long the second group waited before seeing the blue squares again. Afterwards, they were all sent home one more time, and the next day, they were wired up to the same sensors and shown the same squares.
Daniela Schiller So day three, now, is the test.
Dacher Keltner Daniela and her team found the group that got a ten minute break didn’t show a fear response to the blue squares.
Daniela Schiller Presumably, because that original memory was modified. It was updated.
Dacher Keltner But the other group still felt fear. She thinks they formed a totally new memory, rather than updating the old one.
Daniela Schiller And when you come back to the context after the passage of time, usually you would retrieve the fear memory rather than the safe memory.
Dacher Keltner It’s like that old adage: if you fall off a horse, the best thing to do is dust yourself off and get back on. Just make sure you take a ten minute break.
And if you do take six hours, or two decades, as in Michelle’s case for getting over her fear of bikes—taking incremental steps like she did can help you get comfortable again, so you can take on your fears.
On our next episode of The Science of Happiness,
Emanuel Hahn I didn’t grow up with my parents starting from age 12. And I think because my parents weren’t around, I just didn’t have the habit of asking for things. I think I just didn’t want to burden people, and maybe to a certain extent, also was kind of like, “Why would they help me? Like, why do I deserve to be helped?”
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. You can try the Overcoming a Fear practice and others at ggia.berkeley.edu.
Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Associate producer Kristie Song. Sound designer Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. Our editor in chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.