Fear: Why We Should Fear More Than Fear Itself
At about 11PM, you are comfortable in your bed, just after finishing a chapter of an incredibly enjoyable book. You want to read what happens next but you know you have to be up early so you turn off the lamp beside your bed. Suddenly, you hear a noise downstairs and your brain is on high alert. Your immediate thought is that there is a burglar in the house, or worse, a murderer. Your brain quickly scans through any reports you heard or saw of break ins within the area over the past few months. You realise you need to make a decision. You want to tackle the problem but you contemplate taking the children and leaving the house out a window in a back room to avoid any danger. Instead, you decide to grab a small baseball bat beside your child’s room and slowly manoeuvre down the stairs, slower after each step. You creep to the final step, heart racing as you firm your grip and curiously peer around the wall where the sound is coming from. You see the fridge door is open and closing. Is the burglar still here? You go to check the fridge and close it when you realise it won’t close correctly. The fridge is broken. A weight is lifted from your shoulders. There is no mass murderer in the house and the only thing to be scared about is the taste of the milk in the morning. You feel slightly foolish but still relieved.
This situation is a prime example of how fear arises. Fear is a set of neurochemicals released in the amygdala in our brain that tells us to act immediately because of the potential of a risk to our safety. It was developed to allow us to survive and escape when the brain detected wild animals that wanted to have us for dinner. In most cases, the fear response is unnecessary like in the above example but the brain sees differently. It’s just doing its job, just like the container top of a mcflurry. The world is full of fear today. When you put on the news, you need to be afraid of terrorism, kidnappers, BREXIT, the list goes on and on. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you hear the quote “the only thing to fear is fear itself”. However, I sometimes feel that this is slightly misconstrued. This is because there are two types of fear. Firstly, there is unconscious fear, which does not operate under our control. This is often referred to as intuition or our gut feeling and it keeps us safe from danger. People often confuse fear with worry. However, the difference is that our unconscious fear won’t waste our time. It is always important to show awareness of your unconscious fear. This is the fear that you experience when you hear something downstairs at night. It is a feeling of uncertainty about the present moment and even though there is a possibility it might be nothing, it could save your life. This is because our brain processes more information in our surroundings that we are consciously aware of. It is always on edge. Like many emotions, it is also highly irrational. It is why the ‘idiots’ in the horror movies always run up the stairs. You want to stay calm and think rationally when you're in a potentially dangerous situation but your heart begins to beat fast and your mind jumps to thoughts such as ‘there is a burglar in my house’. This is simply our brain being wired to react to possibly dangerous situations to keep us alive. The beauty of this fear is that the amygdala is the swat of the class. It is always learning. As soon as the amygdala processes that the eery sound downstairs is simply the fridge, it stores that piece of information in the hippocampus as an emotional memory and when you hear the noise the following night, you will not be scared.
Then, there is conscious fear. This is fear we construct because of life events. This can be anything from a fear heights, spiders, or certain people to loud noises, textures or smells. It is something that is learned or conditioned over time. For example, you might have one bad experience with dogs and this means that you are afraid any other time you experience them. We essentially teach our minds to react negatively to certain stimuli. What’s the worst that can happen is a term that is ignored because it’s thrown around so often. The worst can always happen if we have no experience of the situation but when we do, we become more intuitive of the likelihood of something happening, so we need to be aware of that. Unfortunately, the problem today is that people will often ignore unconscious fear and they will take on conscious fear.
As humans, we are constantly thinking about the future but the brain is also processing a lot of information in the present. There are several tales of peoples’ lives being put in danger because they ignored certain intuitions they had in situations. For example, in Korea, it is frowned upon to speak up against authorities. This led to Korean Air Flight 801 (seen below) crashing because the co-pilot felt that he could not speak on behalf of his fear. He had an intuition that the decision that the pilot was making was incorrect but he chose to ignore it because he assumed that his fear was irrational. This is unfortunately also very relevant for young girls. If they ever have a gut feeling that something is off with a man who has approached them, then they should always leave the situation. People are generally nice but if our intuition is telling us that it has processed something off, it simply isn’t worth the risk. FEAR = Forget Everything And Run.
Alternatively, people continue to fear situations that cause them distress and this causes continued worry or fear. There is a famous experiment by psychologist John Watson, which involved a young child known as Little Albert (Seen Below). The child of 9 months was exposed to animals such as mice. Over time, the child was conditioned to be afraid of the mice because they were always paired with a loud bell that caused distress. Hence, the child’s hippocampus stored the emotional memory that mice led to loud uncomfortable noises. This led the child to begin crying as soon as he saw the rat. Unfortunately Little Albert, who’s real name is Douglas Merritte, died at the age of 6 because of hydrocephalus, which is a build up of fluid in the brain. This brain defect might explain why the learned fear, was incapable of being unlearned*. However, if he had a normal functioning brain, Little Albert should have been exposed to the rat again and again. Although it might cause a degree of distress, this would eventually rewire his brain to be able to tolerate the rat. And the result of this would be that the brain would no longer excrete the brain chemicals that make up fear. Touching on the Momo blog post two weeks ago, this is an example of the importance of experience of difficult situations rewiring a child’s brain to be more resilient and more developed. Another incredibly prevalent example of this is interactions with people from the Middle East. Unfortunately, the media has constructed all Middle Eastern or Islamic people as terrorists. However, if we choose to expose ourselves to these people, we will learn that they are nothing to be scared about and are humans just like us. In the future, trust your intuition, not labels.
*Please note that there is 0% chance that a psychological experiment such as this would be approved by an ethics board today.
If we can differentiate between our unconscious fear or intuition, and our conscious fear and try and reduce what we are afraid of by regularly exposing ourselves to it, then we are no longer afraid of fear but rather; we understand it. We comprehend it as our brain telling us something in certain situations, and as something that has been learned in other situations. Next time, you’re scared, just remind yourself that at least you’re not squaring up to a wild animal that is trying to kill you.