Factual Friday # 10: The Science Behind theFearbox
TheFearbox and this blog that followed evoke therapeutic feelings that many participants have commented on. As we begin to understand fear, it is important to understand why this discussion helps to begin the process of overcoming fear.
When engaged, an individual will also lose sight of their full range of options in a situation. By creating a passive and non-threatening environment for users to interact with their fears, theFearbox motivates participants to activate their rational fear system without setting off their primitive fear system. This allows for a moment of calm reflection that is often not spent on fears.This does not generally happen because of our society’s insistence that we do not discuss fear. By allowing a calm reflection, users can come to terms with what they fear, determine if it is worth fearing, and fully consider how to avoid their fears in ways they would never be able to think of if their primitive fear system were activated.
A New Factual Fridays
My apologies for my extended absence. I needed so time to breathe and do other things since the show. But today I’ll be posting a new Factual Friday - one of my favorites - from the exhibit. You should all be sure to check it our at 5pm EST
Factual Friday # 9: A Culture of Fear
Fear has always been a tool those in power use to keep their subjects in line – chiefs, kings, religious leaders, even playground bullies, have all used fear to their advantage throughout history. Since the 1990’s and increasingly with the events of September 11th, academics have commented on an increase in our government and media’s use of fear to pass otherwise undesirable laws and sell the need for security and war.1 They have also noted an increase in fear in general, citing the rise of a security market as proof. According to the media and many academics, we now live in a “culture of fear.”2 This is to be expected from a nation fighting a War on Terror. But our culture of fear is not new. Every culture experiences fear, and western culture in particular has been obsessed with the end of the world since back to the 4th century. Depictions of the end of the world can be found in almost every church in Europe. Humans have been looking for security devices since we began living together to secure our safety from the elements and predators.
Despite this claim of a rise in fear, the data from this project shows that the fears projected on society are not the same as the fears that concern individuals on a daily basis. In over 400 submissions to theFearbox there has been no mention of bombs, terrorist, chemicals or warfare. There is a rare mention of violence, but it often reflects the writer’s fear of their own actions being violent rather than the actions of others. The data supports the writing of Dr. Rachel Pain who in multiple papers clarifies that fear does not exist outside of individuals. Fear cannot float through the air like a virus. It only exists when an individual feels it. Thus it is important when the media claims, “Fear is rising,” to ask who is fearful and who they are trying to convince to be afraid. We take cues on whether or not to be scared by the behavior of those around us, and this is why fear is contagious. Until we learn to question the motives and sources behind the media and our government, we give them the power to build our fears.
1. David L Altheide, Creating Fear: News and the Construction of Crisis (New York, 2002).
2. Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low expectation (London and New York, 2005).
Factual Friday # 8: The Valentine’s Edition
This Factual Friday is a little different for a few reasons. First, it’s on a Tuesday. Second, it’s also being posted as a guest piece over at ‘Everybody Has a Brain’ for their day on relationship fears.
Everybody Has a Brain is a really awesome blog on removing the stigma of mental disorders, like depression, anxiety and OCD, and generally how to cope with life. I hope everyone checks it out.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m talking about Fear and Relationships, something my followers submit about regularly.
There’s an endless amount of things I could talk about. Like how fear can motivate you to stay with the wrong person, or stop you from being with someone right. Or how it can tear a relationship apart when we’re too proud to admit how scared we are and that’s really all the other person needs to hear. Or when fear keeps us from letting others get close.
But fear is also important in a relationship. Falling for someone is called that for a reason. We often scare ourselves on purpose so that we can feel the pleasure of overcoming fear. It’s what daredevils thrive on and why we ride rollercoasters and watch horror films. We love the feeling of fear when we can control it. When you fall for someone, you get that same build up and drop in the pit of your stomach, the same rush of the heart. All those things associated with falling in love are your fear symptoms. We love the fall when we make it safely to the other side.
Relationships are terrifying, even with someone you already know well. But everyone is scared. It doesn’t matter how brave you think you are, how fearless. It doesn’t matter how much you say you don’t care about what other people think of you. Because when you actually like someone, you do care. And suddenly rejection and getting hurt is a risk. But until you fear losing something, you can’t have anything worthwhile. Understand that your fear is a sign that this person matters to you.
And once you overcome that fear, that’s when you hit love. I believe love is the absence of fear. When you realize you have nothing to be scared of with another person and feel no fear of judgment, of disappointment, you build a connection that can last a lifetime. This isn’t just some nice feel-good cliche. The few studies that have been done on couples in love show the initial love to be active mostly in the primitive fear system. That calm love that comes after barely touches the primitive fear system. Lasting love is the absence of fear.
If you want love, you have to overcome the fear.
And so, I commend anyone brave enough to show they care on this bizarre holiday.
Factual Friday #6: Empathy and Fear
Empathy and Fear.
possiblybetty shared this video with me, which I found really interesting in explaining the importance of empathy in our species. Today, I thought I’d write about how fear and empathy are tied together.
As I have said before, empathy is a vital part of being human. Those who lack the ability to fully empathize lack the ability to create deep connections with others. They suffer from psychopathy, which generally leads to two career paths: crime or business.
So empathy is the basis of all human connection. If you can’t imagine how someone feels or how they think, it is incredibly difficult to relate to them. This is why sharing our fears with another individual can create such a deep connection. It is expressing our insecurities. We have to hope that they wont laugh in our face or question it and tell us it’s a dumb thing to fear.
By not sharing our fears, we lack reassurance. We lack understanding that everyone around us is just as scared as we are. Somehow, that shared connection of fear makes it easier to be brave. Suddenly, being scared no longer seems cowardly.
There is nothing wrong with being scared. Everyone is. I hope this blog proves that. However, we should never let our fears hold us back.
Factual Friday #5: Phobias
As I briefly described in the last post, phobias, or irrational fears, are cause by an overactive primitive fear system that is unable to be checked by the rational fear system. This post will explain phobias more in-depth.
Because the primitive fear system is just that, primitive, it does not look at details. Instead it can only group objects into mid-level categories. For instance, while we may know the difference between a gardener snake and a rattlesnake, your primitive fear system has no idea. All it sees is a snake because that’s as far as it can categorize. This is a survival mechanism that has helped keep humans and other animals alive for millions of years. It has been proven by evolution that it is better to react with fear when unnecessary, than to risk not acting fast enough.
But this can cause problems. When a bad experience is had with a specific animal, situation or object, perhaps and neighbor’s dog, the primitive fear system cannot recognize that just one dog caused the fear. Instead it jumps to a mid-level category of dogs in general. Suddenly, it will begin reacting and sending the fear signals at the sight of any dog. Despite the individual knowing that most dogs are nothing to fear, their rational fear system is unable to override the primitive fear system and turn it off. This is when a phobia is created and why they are so hard to overcome.
Often the only way to overcome the phobia is to have positive, controlled experiences with the feared thing to slowly reteach the primitive fear system that there is nothing to fear. For the individual, understanding why the stimulus is making them feel the fear reaction can help them overcome the fear and be willing to interact with the object again. Knowing that the fear is being created in your brain for this reason further empowers the rational fear system to override and give power back to the individual.
Factual Friday #4: Rational Fear
I discussed at length the primitive fear system that almost every animal has in Factual Fridays #2. But our fears are not like other animals. What sets us apart?
Our rational fear system.
While the primitive fear system focuses on the here and now, the rational fear system pulls from our acquired knowledge to determine if what we’re looking at is actually a threat. It also allows us to create hypothetical situations in the future that create more complex fears than any other creature on Earth.
The rational fear system is a much more complex system than the primitive one. I will include the names of each part and what they are believed to control, so you are capable of doing your own research, but I claim no great understanding of what follows. I will be keeping it as unscientific as possible.
The rational fear system resides mostly in the prefrontal cerebral cortexes, the very tip of the frontal lobes that are key in creating the feeling of consciousness, our ability for plan for the future and our capacity to feel guilt. Another important structure is the orbitofrontal cortex, which allows us to empathize with the fears of others. It also serves as the connection between the primitive and rational fear systems (I should note, some literature has claimed there is no connection between the two, however, this work is written from a more humanistic standpoint. I am not well educated enough on the subject to know for sure, but based on the writing styles believe the stated to be more accurate).
So what does the rational fear system do?
The primitive fear system always gets the first word in a situation. It is significantly faster and creates the feeling we generally describe as your “gut”. The rational fear system helps us to rationalize out these fears and use learned knowledge to determine if there actually is a threat. It is why we can put ourselves in scary situations and enjoy them, like roller coasters and horror films. Our rational fear system is able to keep the primitive fear system in check and reassure us that we are actually safe. An out of control primitive fear system will create a phobia, described as an irrational fear. Often, what is defining about these phobias is that the individuals knows they are irrational and are perfectly safe, but cannot control the fear. This is because the rational fear system knows it, but has been unable to convince the primitive fear system of the fact.
Compared to the primitive fear system which developed among other animals millions of years ago, the rational fear system is relatively new. It takes significantly longer to develop in each individual, and grows stronger with use and practice as well as education. The primitive fear system is fully developed almost at birth. This is why children have such vivid, uncontrollable fears that they are unable to rationalize away. It is also why as we age, our fears become more complex and future oriented.
How the two systems interact explains much of our fears and how we overcome them.
Factual Friday #3: Fear Symptoms.
This post is going to cover all those symptoms of fear we feel and explain why they happen. Remember that these reactions have evolved over millions of years to protect us in the wild. Some of them are carried over from that time and may no longer make sense in todays world. These are the reactions that have proven themselves life saving enough times that the genes were passed down. However, they may not be the best reaction for every situation.
Freeze - This initial moment of shock does a lot of things. It’s mostly due to your primitive fear system overriding all other systems. Whatever your muscles were doing need to stop immediately. It also allows us to assess our options, and can sometimes help us avoid the danger (like hoping a predator wont notice us)
Catch Breath - This goes along with freezing. It helps us get oxygen in our lungs (and therefore blood) if we need to run, and helps us be less noisy. This lets us hear better.
Pale Skin / Pounding Heart - These reaction both happen because your blood is being pumped faster away from your skin to your large muscles. You skin pales and your heart works harder.
Knot in Stomach - Your primitive fear system shuts down all unnecessary systems, including digestion. That knot is your system shutting down. We have learned to associate the feeling as fear. (note: if you’ve ever heard of people excreting and urinating uncontrollably from fear, those systems get shut down too)
Hair on End - This is your body’s attempt to make you look larger and more threatening
Cold Sweat - Will cool you if you need to fight. Also leads to that shiver down your spine.
Dropped Jaw - This is preparing you to scream if need be. Screaming functions as a cry for help and as a warning to others that there is danger. It can also scare off a predator (everything is afraid of loud noises)
Eyes Widen - You’re brain is taking in more information to help you assess the situation and quickly determine your next move
High Pitched Voice - As your large muscles get blood, your body tenses the smaller muscles that wont help in a fight or flight. The high pitched voice comes from your larynx tensing. This is also why we associate deep voices are more brave. The reasoning is if a voice is deep, you must not be scared.
Unusual Strength and Stamina - Your body instantly begins prepping for strength for a fight and stamina for flight. Hormones are released, mostly adrenaline and noradrenaline. The liver releases sugar into the blood and becomes mroe efficient at producing sugar, which fuels your muscles. Your breathing deepens are you lung capacity increases, putting more oxygen in the blood. All of this leads to super powered muscles.
Blood Clots Fast - Blood moves faster to the muscles, as well as from them with waste, which causes the blood to coagulate faster than normal. This helps you keep vital blood and keep you alive and able to find help.
You’ll notice these reactions are different from when you’re startled and not all always happen. The primitive fear system makes quick decisions to assess the fear and figure out what is necessary. When you’re startled, it knows there’s no time for freezing. Instead you
Jump - try to get away from whatever is “attacking” to by yourself more time.
Tense Muscles - Brace for impact, makes it hurt less
Closed Eyes - tenses face and helps protect it. We are visually strong and this is an attempt to keep our vision working later.
Raised Arms - Trying to block and protect body.
Factual Friday #2: The Primitive Fear System.
All mammals and most other animals have a fear system. It’s known as a “primitive fear system”, and while it varies from creature to creature, they all work basically like this.
The center of the primitive fear system is the amygdala. These small structures, one for each side of the brain, act as an alarm system. It is constantly running to check for immediate danger, even while the rest of the body sleeps. All information coming into brain, a lot of which you are unconscious of, goes through the amygdala. This means all sensory data, everything in your peripheral vision, everything you don’t realize you’re even seeing gets processed. It is looking for any threat, like loud sounds, sudden movements, shadows. If you’ve ever reacted to something before you even realized what it was, jumped out of the way without thinking, that’s your amygdala at work.
The amygdala doesn’t look for specifics. Its job isn’t to analyze the situation and make a timely decision. It’s a fast reaction, quicker than your conscious, to get you out of danger ASAP.
Once activated, the amygdala goes into override and sends signals to the body about how to behave before you even realize it. It is responsible for the fight or flight response and a host of other symptoms we associate with fear.
Every animal needs this to survive. While it often overreacts to stimuli, it’s much safer to overreact than not react enough at an actual danger.
When the amygdala is removed in animals, they lose all fear. Rats with damaged amygdala’s will have no reaction to being in a cage with a cat. When the amygdala is removed or disconnected in humans or even more developed primates, we do not lose all fears. This is because we have developed a second fear system known as the “rational fear system” located in the frontal lobes. People with a removed amygdala are described as much calmer and easy going. They have an incredibly hard time making decisions.
In summary, the primitive fear system is your immediate fears. It is “opinionated, stubborn and simplistic.” When it becomes overactive, it can lead to a host of problems.
(The quote is from Rush W Doznier’s book “Fear Itself”, page 12. It’s a fantastic read. If you’re going to read any book on fear, I recommend this one)
Factual Friday #1: Why fear?
“Everything we do in life is based on fear, especially love.”
While how we fear, what we fear and how we manage that fear is endlessly complex and not fully understood, the emotion of fear is basic and what makes us human.
Since we began writing, fear has been a topic of discussion. Plato and Aristotle in Ancient Greece theorized about fear. The first emotion mentioned in the bible is fear, the feeling Adam has after biting the apple, right before he feels shame. There have been endless discussion and philosophies on our fears. And all of it still holds true. Because the fear you feel is the same emotion that has been felt by every human throughout history.
“It is the quintessential human emotion. Some people live lives devoid of joy, happiness and peace but no one escapes the experience of fear…”
-Rush W. Dosier Jr, Fear Itself
And yet we don’t talk about it. We hid our fears from one another and ourselves, only whispering them as secrets.
Everything in history can be looked at as the result of fear. It underlies everything we do. The pyramids were built out of fear of the afterlife, a fear of what comes next. The Great Wall of China was built out of fear of outsiders. The Mayan hieroglyphics were built by king’s out of fear of losing their power. No culture does not fear. Because fear makes us human.
The medical community has a scientific, chemically readable disease for those rare individuals whose brains lack the ability to fear. They are diagnosed as psychopaths. These are serial killers who lack all empathy. They’re often described as monsters. Without fear, one does not become brave. Without fear, you cannot love, you cannot empathize, you cannot connect. We are a social species. We rely on one another for survival. Therefore, we rely on our fear.
The ultimate goal should never be to live without fear. It is live despite them.