Fear

What frightens you? Climate change? Losing your sight? Genetically modified organisms? Chemicals in products that might harm you? That might harm your children? Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton? Terrorists? The National Security Agency? Your mother? A loud, unexpected noise? Mentally ill people getting their hands on guns?

There’s plenty to choose from, as I’m sure you’re all too aware. And as I’m sure you’re also all too aware, we swim in a sea of information that heightens our fears.

The social psychologist Peter Gray writes extensively about how healthy it is for children to play freely. A few years ago, Dr. Gray wrote an article titled “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents,” which I think accurately captures the content of the piece. In it he argues that over the latter half of the 20th Century, children’s free play declined in large part because parents, educators, public health officials, and others increasingly feared for children’s health and safety. The effect of those fears was the increasing imposition of adult-directed activities on children’s time. And the effect of that shift from child-directed to adult-directed activity corresponds to a rise in child and adolescent psychopathology, in particular the rise of anxiety and depression and the decline in a sense of personal power.

Are those fears justified? In a recent report, the Department of Health and Human Service suggests that over the last 80 years, children’s safety has steadily improved. This might have happened precisely because parents and others have been more vigilant because they’ve been increasingly fearful. Yet the improvement has been consistent since the mid-1930s—during the first half of the 20th Century in what has been called the golden era of childhood play when, presumably, dangers were rampant.

Before we get caught up in the issues this raises, let me say that fear is a good thing. It will keep you out of trouble. In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky describes how a zebra who sees a tawny patch in the high grass is better served by instant fright and the urge to flee than pausing to ponder whether that might only be a patch of dry grass and not a lion.

In fact, that’s one place where fears come from: natural selection. Zebras who startle are more likely to escape predators than zebras who ponder. Those more inclined to startle and escape are more likely to survive and breed and make more zebras that startle and escape.

Neuroscientists such as Joseph LeDoux talk about stimuli and responses that are species-typical. LeDoux reluctantly refers to these as innate—what frightens a zebra or a human without thought. For example, humans and other primates are prone to be frightened by snakes; zebras not so much.

The point here is that the things that frighten us (and every other kind of creature) and the way we (and they) respond has a long evolutionary history. That, of course, is true for the full range of our emotions, not just fear.

The way we (and other creatures) respond when frightened is captured by the well-known triad: fight, flee, or freeze. And that’s what fear mobilizes in you—all the physiological mechanism you’ll need to do one of those things in order to avoid being eaten or damaged or incapacitated.

I don’t want to make it sound as though our innate fears are all instinctive. We learn to avoid dangerous or unpleasant people, places, and things. Once learned, we don’t have to ponder how to respond. We just do. That’s what makes them innate. The classic experiments in conditioning are all about how experimental animals are taught to do or not do certain things based on how scientists manipulate the animals’ environment—the electric shock and the food pellet being particular favorites.

The good news is that innate fears can, to some extent, be unlearned in a physiological process called extinction. A lab rat who is taught to associate pain with a particular environment will get stressed out when forced into that environment. But if he or she ceases to experience pain, the anxiety will dissipate or even disappear altogether. Humans engage in psychotherapy, self-help books, and counter-learning experiences of all sorts.

Fear can also be a bad thing, of course, because it can get you into trouble. Lions typically hunt in pairs. One frightens a zebra who runs into the paws of a waiting mate. So the fear-induced impulse to flee ought to be tempered by some pondering as to which route his or her flight should take. So if Donald Trump scares you to death, you might want to consider whether fleeing to Hillary Clinton is the best response. Not a recommendation; just a thought.

Which brings us to fears we acquire through learning from other humans. A research article titled “Social Learning of Fear” describes how fear can be conditioned not only from direct experience but through paying attention to what’s happening to others. We can acquire fears by seeing others traumatized but also by observing the body language of others who are frightened. In movies there’s the advantage of a soundtrack that plays ominous music as frightening images and frightened actors appear on the screen to let you know that something frightening is about to happen. Having a soundtrack for living would be handy, but isn’t likely any time soon.

The significance of the research on the social learning of fear is that directly learned and socially learned fears share many neurocircuits, but socially learned fears enlist circuits for recognition of faces, body language, and other social communication. In other words, it enlists those complex features of our nervous system that make us highly pro-social creatures able to read minds with considerable skill based on facial expression, body language, vocalizations, and so on.

And here, too, fear can be a good thing or not. It depends on how you respond. And that has to do with how you experience what you’re feeling as part of what you’re doing. After all, the biological and evolutionary purpose of fear is to get you to do something. Antonio Damasio (Descartes's Error) describes how our emotions arise from how our nervous system scans our body to make sense of what’s physiologically going on, what’s coming in through our senses, and what our body wants to do about it. Fear is the message: “Predator alert! Do something! Now!”

Fear of Missing Out” is a psychological phenomenon that’s received increasing interest as social media has become more prevalent. Fear of missing out is in the realm of computer addiction. The fear here is the fear of regret that motivates people to remain continually informed of what other people are doing—or at least what they are posting. I don’t think this is a particularly new fear, just one that’s significantly enhanced by smart phones and tablets and other technologies designed to keep people permanently gossiping.

You might question whether this really qualifies as fear, but social media has led to other phenomena that clearly do. At last year’s Annual Conference of the British Psychology Society, researcher Pam Ramsden reported the effects of horrific, unedited images available through social media on the emotional state of viewers. A quarter of the nearly 200 participants in the study showed significant signs of post traumatic stress disorder despite having no history of trauma.

The significant background to the study is that it has been known for some time that many people’s occupation subjects them to traumatic events that also elicit symptoms of PTSD, particularly health care workers. I’d also note, to return to Dr. Gray and the fear for children, that our increasing exposure to traumatic images in the media generally—social, mass, alternative—is likely to have a similar effect.

For some time researchers have reported that the use of frightening news is not only a news publishing mainstay—“if it bleeds, it leads”—it’s also increasing. This has elicited a wide ranging discourse about the culture of fear (Glassner, The Culture of Fear; Linke & Smith, Cultures of Fear). The core argument in this literature is that “if it bleeds, it leads” is not just old newspaper wisdom nor a sad commentary on human nature (whatever that’s supposed to be). Instead it is one of the many methods carefully invoked to traumatize people in order to better control them through a wide variety of methods for disseminating information.

The biology of how this works makes perfect sense. Your nervous system works to get you out of trouble when you’re afraid. It’s one of the ways in which it’s good for you—at least when you’re actually in danger. For example, when afraid, your attention is focused on the source of the threat. That zebra is paying close attention to that lion (if it is a lion). Of course, the zebra might not pay much attention to the whereabouts of the lion’s hunting partner. So maybe the smart zebra studies the hunting behavior of lions by watching how other zebra’s get hunted by lions. If they had opposable thumbs, they could invent technologies that record lion kills and then other technologies to broadcast those recordings to other zebras as part of a routine communications methodology that might be called the news cycle.

But zebras don’t have opposable thumbs and so don’t have those technologies and so also don’t have a news cycle feeding an unquenchable thirst for information and so are not cursed with the fear of missing out.

Instead—and this is why zebras don’t get ulcers—they outrun the lion (but not always) and then their body rolls back on all the charged-up physiology that’s referred to in the neuroscience literature as the fear response. Some of this consists of physiologically releasing the effects of fear, for example by shivering. And fairly soon the zebra is back to its normal life of grazing. It’s called recovery.

What happens if you live in an environment that saturates you with information about traumatic events? Lions at every turn? An environment and its associated information cycle that doesn’t let you recover?

Humans (and other creatures) not only pay attention differently when frightened, they think differently. An experiment plotted what’s called a response curve for trading off one thing for another. The experiment first established trade offs under normal conditions. When fear was introduced into the experiment, subjects acted irrationally according to the normal trade-offs—“irrationally” meant that their choices weren’t consistent with how they previously made choices under so-called normal conditions. But the choices were internally consistent for being in a state of fear. In other words, the subjects, when frightened, might seem irrational as compared to their normal behavior, but quite rationally for being in a state of fear.

The Ramsden study I mentioned earlier that found a quarter of people who viewed traumatic images showed signs of post traumatic stress disorder also found heightened stress and anxiety in the other participants. The point of which is that in experiencing or observing frightening events, your response is not either-or, either blind fear or utter indifference. It’s on a continuum from indifference to panic.

Where you land on that continuum will depend on the exact nature of the danger, how capable you think and feel you are to deal with it, and how sensitive you are to threats generally and of that particular kind of threat—all of which come from your personal and family history.

For example, in a study of children’s reactions to the 2013 Boston Marathon explosions, the more exposure to media coverage children experienced, the more they developed post traumatic stress symptoms. But children with greater sympathetic nervous system reactivity were even more likely to develop post traumatic stress symptoms. This should be no surprise since the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the stress response and the fear response.

And it should also be no surprise to find out the some people are more easily frightened than others. Some people experience greater trauma than others—in the womb, as they grow up, as they mature. Some people are innately more sensitive—not because of bad luck or bad genes but because trauma in earlier generations gets passed along to later generations. For example, rat mothers who were not nurtured as pups are not good nurturers of their own pups.

But are we collectively more easily frightened now than we used to be? That’s what Peter Gray suggests when asking why children’s free play has declined and, as a consequence, why child and adolescent psychopathology has increased. Remember that these are children who are more anxious and have a lower sense of personal power than earlier generations and that these children will likely grow into adulthood more anxious and with a diminished sense of personal power.

Dr. Gray is right, of course. The bad news didn’t just fall from the sky. The culture of fear is quite intentional and the intention is to manipulate us to accept a way of life that is not in our interest. The culture of fear is promoted through the dissemination of information, no matter whether the source is corporate or alternative. The extreme is the mobilization of fear in what has been called moral panics by design, where the very life of the culture, nation, way of life is made to seem in danger by our leaders.

The life blood of the moral panic is information. Which begs the question, is it possible to be well-informed without being traumatized?