For most people, just the thought of abseiling down one of the tallest towers in the UK is enough to induce mind-numbing fear. But when Jordy Cernik scaled down the edge of the 128 metre National Lift Tower in Northampton, his body barely registered a response.
Cernik features in the BBC documentary The World’s Most Extraordinary People and jumped at the chance to take part in an experiment to find out why he’d lost the ability to feel fear.
“I just had this feeling inside that I wasn’t getting scared about anything,” he tells SBS. A realisation he came to after jumping from a plane for a charity skydive in 2013.
“So when they said, ‘Look, we’ve got a scientist who is going to test your fear response and give you a definite answer, would you want to do it?’ and I said, ‘Definitely, yes’.”
“I just had this feeling inside that I wasn’t getting scared about anything."
Cernik was diagnosed with Cushing’s Syndrome in 2005—a disease that caused him gain weight and sweat excessively, despite him exercising nearly every day and following a healthy diet.
“It’s basically when your cortisol levels are overworking because of the pituitary gland and the adrenal gland working together. So your body has too many steroids in it,” Cernik says.
“It’s not a nice one to have,” he adds. “Sometimes it can be cured by scraping out the pituitary gland— so that was the brain surgery I had.
“But mine was persistent and then they ended up having to take my adrenals out just to stop the connection altogether, but then that causes other problems along the way.”
The adrenal glands produce hormones including adrenaline and cortisol—which are released into the body in response to danger.
When Cernik abseiled down the National Lift Tower for The World’s Most Extraordinary People, he was fitted with bands by cognitive scientist Dr Sarah Garfinkel to test how his body would react when those hormones are missing.
“Sarah was able to tell us, ‘Yes, your body’s not giving the fear response that it should do,” Cernik says.
“And she’s said its most likely due to the fact I had my adrenals out and after all the brain surgeries, that have kind of messed something up in my brain.
“It’s just like a switch in my brain that’s gone off and it’s not telling my body to react and its a strange feeling,” he says.
“Watching my kids running around a street, normally I’d be scared thinking they’re going to fall over and hurt themselves, and now I don’t have that which is a big shame."
The side effects from Jordie’s surgeries don’t just affect the way he feels in extreme situations like riding a rollercoaster or jumping out of a plane.
“Watching my kids running around a street, normally I’d be scared thinking they’re going to fall over and hurt themselves, and now I don’t have that which is a big shame. Because it’s every parent’s right to feel scared for their kids,” he says.
“And it’s not just fear, I don’t get excited, I don’t get motivated to do stuff. So I really have to push myself to do stuff because I haven’t got that drive anymore.”
Cernik also experiences a different kind of pain than most people.
“So if you hurt yourself now you would produce adrenaline, which is your body’s way of creating a painkiller. But I get natural pain,” he says.
“Anything you do, like banging your elbow on the table, you would normally laugh but it’s really painful. So it’s a really, really horrible nasty condition at times.”
But according to Dr Garfinkel, Cernik’s rare side effects could go a long way in helping doctors to understand mental health disorders such as anxiety.
“We can take that, based on Jordy, and apply it to people with anxiety, who have too much fear, to try and understand more how novel treatments can potentially be used to treat people with anxiety,” Dr Garfinkel notes in the program.
“I would love to know that I could do something to help people with anxiety,” Cernik says.
“Because I know a few people that have got really bad anxiety and if it could work for them, it’d be brilliant.”
The World's Most Extraordinary People continues Monday nights at 8:30pm on SBS and is available after broadcast on SBS On Demand.