Science

Are You Afraid?

For our cave-dwelling ancestors, fear would have been integral to survival and the propagation of the human race; a predator on the periphery would have spelt danger and elicited a chain of chemical reactions in the brain, prompting a ‘flight-or-fight’ response. In evolution, those who feared the correct things survived and populated the Earth, and thus the trait of fear was deemed fundamental to the longevity of the human race. In the modern world, this biological function manifests in situations that do not warrant a ‘fight-or-flight’ response, for example, when starting university, at parties and in public speaking. In just about any situation, there will be someone who remains in a perpetual state of fear, regardless of whether or not this biological response to putative threats is actually necessary.

Fear of public speaking is ubiquitous, and yet it is not immediately apparent as to why this fear evinces physical and emotional symptoms such as panic, a feeling of paralysis and a shaky voice. Other social anxieties also seem nonsensical when viewed in light of survival; however, there are tenuous links to a different kind of survival in the modern world. Nowadays, we no longer rely on physical prowess and agility to put food on the table; employment and money are the biggest factors in sustaining us. Social standing and positive human interaction are also conducive to a superior quality of life, illustrated in a study compiled at Brigham Young University, which showed a 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with strong social relationships. They were also deemed to live 3.7 years longer. Lack of success in public speaking and other social interactions can not only have instant ramifications such as humiliation and regret, but also far-reaching consequences such as social rejection and exclusion, which would mar our future quality of life. The fear of failing exams can also be classed under this category.

Conversely, the plethora of fearful thoughts (transmuted through worry) felt by the average human is discordant with the actual number of perceived threats that manifest. For example, many of our worries are things that have not actually happened yet and are unlikely to happen; the prevalence of fear in an everyday ‘safe’ context is thus rendered redundant. Fear is an autonomic response, which means it is unconsciously triggered as a reaction to a stimulus. In the aforementioned social cases, it appears that fear may have evolved to ensure our survival as social creatures in a modern world. Additionally, there are many fears that would have been carried over from previous epochs, such as arachnophobia, of which 30% of women and 20% of men are sufferers. This inveterate fear of spiders is conducive to our survival; we should fear spiders because of their potentially poisonous bite.

However, there are those among us who feel no fear, even though the absence of fear would be detrimental to survival. A sense of fear should stop us from entering a dark alley in which there may be hidden danger ? though that’s not to say that there aren’t some who will override this biological response and weigh up their options between a dark alley and the longer route home. The absence of fear has been noted in a woman in the USA, known only as SM, whose brain lacks amygdala, a region of the brain that has been linked to fear. SM has been threatened with a knife and had a gun held to her head. Instead of being afraid, she has reacted calmly to both situations, simply describing them as strange. She appears to have no other emotional deficiencies. Similarly, studies have shown that monkeys without amygdalae do not recoil from snakes and will approach and touch them, which normal monkeys would not do out of fear.

It would seem then that the old adage is true; the only thing we have to fear is fear itself… and spiders.

Settit Beyene

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