The Science of Fear

Fear is one of the strongest and most impactful human emotions, completely transforming out physiology, brain function, and behavior the second we perceive it. In fact, fear response is so primal that it derives from our “reptilian” brain, a precursor to modern man and woman, harkening back to the time when we had to run from dinosaurs in order to stay alive.

These days, fear serves an essential purpose, keeping us alert and readying us for action that is critical to our very survival. In the field of psychology, this is called “preparedness.”

But too often, we fear things that aren’t there, threats that aren’t real but imagined, and dangers that only exist as figments of our anticipation. Therefore, fear becomes harmful and even debilitating for too many modern humans. It keeps us up at night, causes us to sabotage our goals and dreams, and makes us do some pretty goofy stuff when it comes to work, jobs, and even relationships.

Today, we’ll examine 15 facts about the science of fear so you may understand it better. In part two of this blog, I’ll outline 10 positive and healthy ways to cope with your fears.

1. The origin of fear in our brains is a walnut-sized organ called the amygdala, which responds to stored memories to anticipate what might cause us harm. Once it perceives a threat, the amygdala completely takes over brain function.

2. When your brain understands there is no real danger, this provides the same adrenaline and endorphin rush as real fear.

3. The neurological systems in our brain that are stimulated by fear are also associated with pleasure, linking the two physical and emotional experiences.

4. What happens to your body and mind when you are subjected to fear?

  • When your brain recognizes danger (or what it interprets as danger), the fight or flight response kicks in.
  • Adrenaline is released throughout your system.
  • Your brain also releases endorphins to dull any pain that may be coming.
  • Your pupils dilate to help you see better.
  • Your breathing quickens as your body anticipates needing more oxygen.
  • Your heart beats faster to get more blood to your muscles and brain.
  • Your arm and body hair also stands on end, making you look bigger.
  • You also start sweating in an effort to cool your system down.
  • To preserve energy, your digestive and urinary systems slow down.

5. Some fears are inherent to the human condition, like the fear of falling off a building or fleeing from an attacker, etc. Scientists have shown that a gene called stathmin engrains this fear within us. For this reason, fears and anxieties can also be passed down generation to generation as our DNA code alters, called epigenetics.

6. But the majority of our daily fears are learned, not transmitted through our DNA, and memory (and perception of our memories) are a prominent trigger.

7. Some people not only are less subject to fear but actually seek out the adrenaline rush from danger. These thrill seekers or adrenaline junkies have a different brain chemistry than the rest of us, with more prominent releases of dopamine to trigger the feelings of pleasure and reward.

8. That’s why human beings also are attracted to the things that frighten them the most, seeking them out in some degree to test and overcome their fears. That’s probably why we’ve spent $88 billion on horror movies since 1995 - we love the “safe rush” of being scared!

9. 1 in 23 people suffer from a phobia, which is an irrational fear. A few strange phobias include:

  • Nomophobia: the fear of being out of mobile phone contact.
  • Turophobia- fear of cheese
  • Coulrophobia – fear of clowns
  • Papaphobia- fear of the pope
  • Pogonophobia- fear of beards Triskaidekaphobia- fear of the number 13
  • Triskaidekaphobia- fear of the number 13

10. Did you know that you can literally be scared to death? It’s extremely rare, but if your body enters the heightened state caused by fear but never returns to its normalized calm function, your systems can go into shock and your heart can stop.

11. Researchers have shown that hate isn’t the opposite of love, but fear is. In fact, your brain releases the chemical oxytocin, produced in a gland in the brain called the hypothalamus when you’re in love, which can help override normal fears and make you feel euphoric. Basically, oxytocin is the “courage” chemical that helps us override fear, and love is the biggest producer of that.

12. Our fear response is so “hardwired” and critical to our survival that the brain actually has a “backup” fear receptor in case the amygdala organ fails to work because of trauma, injury or defect. In that case, the bed nuclei kicks in, ensuring a fear response. But sometimes, the bed nuclei is triggered even as the amygdala functions properly, causing acute fears and anxiety.

13. We often say that people can "smell" fear, and it's true to some extent. Scientists believe that early humans had an acute ability to sense the chemical signals that others let off in order to detect danger for the group. However, this sense has been muted over time, but they still believe we can pick up on the sensation of fear, which accounts for the mob fear or stampede mentality in crowds.

14. How we perceive and measure the world changes when we are subject to fear. In fact, people are more likely to overestimate the size and threat level of something that scares them, like guessing that a 2-story rooftop is actually 4 stories high if they have to jump from it, etc.

15. For this same reason, time seems to "slow down" when we're scared, faced with an extraordinary emergency, or panicked. There's another neurological reason for this. The more memories we have of an event, the longer it feels like it lasts to us in real time. When we're scared or in a state of heightened awareness because of adrenaline, the amygdala causes us to take extra memories of the present surroundings and circumstances, like additional snapshots that make us feel like time slows down.

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