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You can admit it…this is a safe space…we’re all afraid of something. Our phobias can be common ones, like arachnophobia (the fear of spiders) or unusual ones, like koumpounophobia (the fear of buttons). The question, however, is why do these fears even exist? What part of our brain is designed to be terrified by buttons or spiders? Furthermore, what happens within the human body before we scream and start running for our lives?
The Heart of Fear
The part of the brain responsible for registering fear is the amygdala, a bundle of neurons in the shape of two almonds located deep in the temporal lobe. When a person sees something that frightens them, like a massive spider, their amygdala is activated and, in turn, activates other regions of the brain, namely the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then triggers the release of hormones, such as adrenaline, which is responsible for our “fight or flight” response.
Now, keep in mind, that there’s also a rare genetic condition called Urbach-Wieth disease, in which the amygdala of the affected person shrivels up and is left inactive. In such patients, fear was observed, but not towards typically scary stimuli. Instead, they reacted in fear when made to inhale a carbon-dioxide mixture through a mask. This shows that the body has an alternative pathway for fear that does not involve the amygdala.
We know what happens in our brains when we get scared, but what’s the reason for being afraid of things like spiders in the first place?
Why Do Spiders (or buttons) Scare Us?
There are various ways that we develop a fear of a certain object, action, or idea. For example, phobias can be induced in mice by giving them a painful shock while they are exposed to certain sounds and smells. This makes them begin to associate the stimulus with pain, thereby developing the phobia. This is called ‘direct association’.
In humans, fear mostly takes hold through two main pathways: indirect association and fear transference.
In indirect association, people develop a fear of something because they once had a negative experience while interacting with that object or creature. This phenomenon is well explained by psychologist Ric Ferraro, who gives an example of a person with a phobia of the color green. He explains that, as a child, “they could have fallen down, gotten green grass on their clothes, and their mom or dad yelled at them, so now they associate fear with the color green.”
In fear transference, people primarily derive their fear through observing others. Therefore, if you see your friend get scared of a spider and run for his life over and over again, there is a good chance that you will also eventually develop that fear.
Fear can also develop through instruction, such as reading about how dangerous snakes are, and then developing a phobia of them, or even through inheritance (really!), meaning that if any of your ancestors were scared of buttons, there’s a slight chance you’ll be afraid of them too.
As you can see, fear takes hold of us in various ways, which is why people eventually end up being scared of quite harmless things, like birds, turtles, or pencils. It sounds a bit silly for those without an unusual phobia, but don’t worry, you have the rest of your life to develop a good one!
Hey look…a spider!
- Neuroscience Online
- How Cells Communicate During Fight or Flight – Genetic Science Learning Center (University of Utah)
- What Makes You Feel Fear? – National Population Register
- Science in Our World: Certainty and Controversy – Penn State University