Night falls, and darkness creeps into every corner of the room. As the wind howls louder, shaking the branches of the tree that looms against your window, an unfamiliar creak on the stairs makes you turn slowly with rising terror, an icy chill in your veins…
It’s a familiar scene. The stereotypical haunted house in the latest horror movie, but although you already know this is fiction, your body reacts as if you’re there, in the midst of the action, wondering if you’ll survive.
“There’s good reason for this,” explains Liz Blagrove, senior teaching fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick. “Your brain and body are finely tuned to detect and respond to threat, from basic fight or flight reactions like rapid heartbeat and changes in your breathing and core temperature, to more sophisticated processing of visual stimuli like angry faces or weapons. These experiences can both capture your attention and trigger the urge to fight, flee or freeze.
“Earlier in human history, these types of reactions would have been the key to survival. In fact, the parts of the brain that orient us to such threat – the limbic system, primarily the amygdala – are shared with much less-evolved species. They were required to keep you alive, and staying alive meant increasing the chance of reproduction and preserving our genes in future generations.”
In the modern world, the majority of us don’t really need to be ready to fight off a bear. So how is this vital reaction being used? Are the things we’re scared of the same things that threaten our lives, or prevent securing a genetic future via our offspring?
Fear is not always useful
“Ask young people this question, and the answer may be no,” explains Dr Blagrove. “For example, in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attack (Gallup Poll, 2005), many American children and adolescents identified issues such as fear of failure, getting into a good college and ‘making mistakes that would mess up their lives’ to be almost as fear-provoking as terrorist acts, war or being involved in fatal accidents. Add to this, more recent phenomena such as Fear of Missing Out or FOMO, for example, when you’re separated from your source of social media, and it’s much harder to understand these fears in terms of survival and our reproductive imperative. In fact, in the field of psychology we could identify these types of fears as being more symbolic or existential, in other words, ‘it’s all about ME’.
“It’s not difficult to see where this trend may be leading us. When mental health may relate so strongly to self-perception of success, it’s not easy to disentangle where fear is useful (and entirely normal), and where it holds us back from the same goals of which we are scared to fall short.
Scaring ourselves for fun
“This would be perplexing enough if humans were consistent in the way they responded to symbolic or existential fear,” continues Dr Blagrove. “Fears like humiliation or ceasing to exist are challenged, along with well-established adaptive fear responses to things like spiders, snakes and heights, by humans’ desire to scare themselves for fun. While these arguably pre-programmed fears of creepy-crawlies or ‘things that go bump in the night’ are useful, why would some of us actively seek situations that provoke similar reactions?
“Bungee jumping off a high bridge or terrifying yourself by watching a gore-filled screen, cushion clutched in front of your eyes, will get the same autonomic nervous system reaction as genuine terror –and this is the whole point.
“Fear brings us to life, literally, and metaphorically. In the metaphorical sense, experiencing fear keeps us (and our children) safe from harm, ready to survive and thrive into the future. In the more literal sense, the kick of adrenaline shakes us up, gets our blood pumping and heightens our awareness of our environment.
“Fear wakes us up and makes us face the present moment. In that moment, fear is our friend.”
Published 30 October 2018
Dr Liz Blagrove is a senior teaching fellow in the Department of Pyschology. She has a particular interest in selective attention, processing of emotional faces, social attention and cognitive ethology.
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