Take a peak inside the terror of your mind.
During World War II, U.S. Navy Lt. Ralph E. Kirsch, a physician and physiology researcher, conducted a study to document the effects of combat on bomber crews. Kirsch flew as an observer on 21 combat bombing and surveillance flights over Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, where he sat directly behind the pilot and co-pilot and monitored their pulse rate, blood pressure, breathing and perspiration—all of which dramatically rose when they got close to a target and experienced the risk of being knocked out of the air by enemy fire. But perhaps the most revealing data came from Kirsch’s vivid, hyperaware description of his own initial experience flying into combat. His hands, he recalled in his report, were drenched in icy sweat, yet his mouth was dry as cotton.
The brave lieutenant had experienced fear, one of the human body’s most basic—and potent—responses to the environment. Our brains are wired to be on the lookout continually for things that scare us, and when we spot one, it causes a powerful reaction. Our bodies kick into high gear, jacking up our heart rates and blood pressure and cranking out a surge of hormones that give us heightened physical abilities. Our brains step it up to another level, too, becoming intensely aware of our surroundings and able to remember and work with minute pieces of information that we otherwise might not even notice. Except for the minority of thrill-seekers in the population who enjoy the sensation, most of us probably don’t enjoy being genuinely afraid. But that’s okay, because fear has a very useful function, in giving us the
ability to avoid danger or to protect ourselves from harm.
Humans, of course, aren't the only creatures who experience fear in reaction to danger. When one fish in a school gets injured by a predator, the rest abruptly flee, tipped off by a chemical called chondroitin sulfate that is given off by the wounded fish's skin. But animals also learn fear. Researchers have found that animals such as birds tend to
flee more quickly at the sight of an approaching predator if they’ve had the experience of being stalked before.
In humans, fear seems to be a combination of innate and learned behavior. Research suggests that while we may not have specific fears pre-installed in our brains, we seem to be born with the ability to spot things that generally scare people and learn to fear them as well. Researchers, for example, have observed fear reactions in children between seven and 18 months of age who observed film footage of wriggling snakes, accompanied by a frightened-sounding narrator. As Rutgers University psychologist Vanessa LoBue explains: "We have these biases to detect things like snakes and spiders really quickly, and to associate them with things that are yucky or bad, like a fearful human voice." But the intensity of the fear that we experience may be partly genetic. A study published in 2003 by U.S. and Swedish researchers found that identical twins tended to show the same degree of
fear—as measured by increased output from sweat glands—when they had a frightening experience, but that fraternal twins had differing responses.
It's easy for humans to learn fear, because our sensory systems and brains are fine-tuned to spot things that we should be afraid of, and then to trigger a reaction to them. We’re adept at spotting fleeting glimpses of danger. In an experiment published in 2012, for example, New York University and University of Edinburgh researchers showed subjects images in one of their eyes, and gave them electric shocks to condition them to fear the images. Some subjects were allowed to see the images clearly, while the researchers suppressed the images for others by showing colorful moving images to their other eye. The study found that those who were prevented from seeing the images clearly learned to be afraid more quickly, though the subjects who got a better look formed a stronger association over time.
The brain's fear center is the amygdala, a pair of almond-shaped bunches of neurons that is one of most primitive parts of the human brain. The amygdala is kind of a biological version of those home alarm systems that you see advertised on TV, except that it's way more sensitive to danger. It's wired both to the thalamus, a brain structure that takes in sensory information, and also to the medial prefrontal cortex, an area that actually picks whatever action you take to protect
yourself from something scary. The central part of the amygdala generates the immediate fear that we feel from a threat, while the outer portion specializes in the lingering anxiety that we have after a frightening experience.
When the amygdala picks up sensory info that a threat has been spotted, it kicks into action, signaling glands to release a flood of chemicals that include adrenalin and cortisol, the main stress hormone, which help us to prepare for danger. That surge causes the heart, lungs and other parts of our bodies to kick into high gear, so that we can run faster or fight more effectively. At the same time, though, fear switches our senses into a hyperaware mode as well. A study by Dutch researchers published in 2009, for example, showed that subjects who were shown pictures of people with fearful faces were able to make out the orientation of thick lines more clearly, but that they did worse at making out finer lines, compared to those who were
shown a neutral expression. In practical terms, that visual shift enables a person to focus on the most important information for survival—how far away a potential threat is, and how it is moving—while screening out useless data, such as whether the attacker has whiskers or wrinkles. At the same time, Belgian researchers have discovered, our brain prioritizes visual information and sounds can help increase visual memory.
To help us in figuring out what to do when we feel threatened, our working memory—that is, the ability to retain and retrieve information on the fly—becomes more powerful as well. Additionally, we tend to retain that information, so that we're better equipped the next time that we encounter a robber, a hungry lion or a speeding train. "Your memory of events and details while in a fearful state will often become imprinted in your mind and stay with you forever," explains psychologist LoBue.
While we might enjoy watching horror movies or riding roller coasters at amusement parks for the simulated fear experience, most of us don’t enjoy the sensation of being genuinely afraid of what we perceive as a real threat. "Studies have shown that if given a choice between waiting for an adverse outcome and getting it over with quickly, most people choose the fast resolution," says LoBue. "That's because the cost of waiting for something bad to happen,
what we refer to as dread, can have an extremely negative effect on your brain. Tests have shown that prolonged fear and anxiety can register as more painful than the thing we are actually dreading."
Fear isn't experienced by everyone in the same way, either. There are people—"high sensation seekers," in neuroscience jargon—who actually enjoy the sort of hair-raising experiences that most of us would go out of our way to avoid. Researchers believe that danger junkies' brains actually may work differently from those of most people, because they have less of the receptors that regulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that creates the sensation of being rewarded. As a result, the intense arousal from being in danger may be more pleasurable to them than frightening. Studies of twins suggest that the tendency to seek out risk to a large degree is inherited, rather than learned. Some see it as a remnant of human evolution, since in early humans,
those who were willing to accept risks were more likely to be successful as hunters.
We have the ability to adapt to fear, as well, as Lt. Kirsch discovered during World War II. While he found himself powerfully frightened on his first combat flight, he noted that on subsequent forays into the combat zone, he never was that scared again. Instead, like a high-wire artist who focuses on putting one foot ahead of the other, Kirsch forced himself to concentrate on the pilots’ reactions to danger, which kept him from focusing upon the risk that he faced.
- Being a failure
- Terrorist attacks
- 1Terrorist attacks
- 4Being a failure
- The Blair Witch Project
- The Amityville Horror
- The Exorcist
- The Sixth Sense
- What Lies Beneath
- 1The Exorcist
- 2The Sixth Sense
- 3The Amityville Horror
- 4What Lies Beneath
- 5The Blair Witch Project
- Crowded spaces
- Confined spaces
- 4Crowded spaces
- 5Confined spaces
|Teen Fears||Horror Movies||Phobias|
Don't be afraid of fear. It's usually on your side.
As we learn in this episode, our brains are wired to scan our sensory input for signs of danger, and to sound a warning that floods our bodies with energizing hormones and shifts our senses and working memory into overdrive. The fear reaction may not be pleasant for some, but it serves a critical function, by enabling us to perform optimally to survive potential threats. According to security consultant Gavin de Becker, author of the nonfiction bestseller The Gift of Fear: and Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, it's easy to let our sensitive biological alarm system get the better of us. "Far too many people are walking around in a constant state of vigilance, their intuition misinformed about what really poses danger," he writes. While many people with heightened anxiety are suffering from PTSD there are
some that may be helped by examples of how to not act on their fears. Here are some pointers, gleaned from his book, on how to use fear effectively.
1. Don't be distracted by phantom hazards. A person's constantly thinking that a mugger may jump out from behind a hedge, or that an assailant may be lurking in a parked car, will only become less attentive to sensory input that may indicate actual danger. "Safety is enhanced by perception of what is outside the mind, perception of what is happening, not what might happen," de Becker writes.
2. Be afraid of the danger, not the sign itself. Being afraid of someone walking toward us on a dark street is a waste of anxiety, de Becker counsels. "Many people will approach us, but only a very few might harm us," he writes. It's an actual attack that we should fear, not the approach. Better to allow our minds to remain undistracted by anxiety, so that they can
do a better job of watching for warning signs of malevolent intent.
3. Remember that the thing you're anxious about hasn't actually happened yet. This is a good strategy for dealing with the butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling that we might get before giving an important speech. Backstage, our minds may dwell upon all the possible consequences of failure,
from embarrassment to having our careers crash and burn. Instead, de Becker writes, we should regard anxiety as a wake-up call, a reminder to concentrate upon our task.
4. Remember that there's a difference between anxiety and real fear. Just the word "shark" provokes anxiety, and it's hard to imagine someone willingly jumping into the water and tangling with a great white. But de Becker notes that when a man named Rodney Fox found himself being dragged underwater by a big shark, he had no time to be terrified. Instead, he instinctively plunged his thumbs into the shark's eyes, forcing the animal to let him go, and then grabbed onto the shark's body to prevent it from biting him. When the shark dived, he somehow managed to swim away. The lesson: In an actual crisis moment, real fear actually can empower us to perform amazing feats.