“Being afraid is what has kept us alive,” says one of the characters in the hit show The Walking Dead. Indeed, fear has kept the human race alive, not just those living during a fictional zombie apocalypse. In this sense, fear is of course a positive emotion. But what happens when we guess wrong, and let irrational fears take over our lives?
What’s the Big Idea?
The amygdala is the part of the brain that is responsible for our primal emotions, notably fear. It’s an early warning system, if you will, that alerts us to dangers – all sorts of dangers that might threaten our survival.
That made sense when we were living in nature. You had to look out for things that might eat you. And yet, this can also make modern humans oversensitive, and cause us to react to dangers that don’t exist and push us to make illogical and irrational decisions.
“A lot of people out there live every day of their lives as if it’s Halloween,” says Kevin Dutton, psychologist and author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success. “They are spooked by people that they see, that they walk past in the street. They see a threat in any kind of situation.”
Dutton explains that these people are at the other end of the fear extreme to psychopaths. These are people who suffer from severe anxiety disorders, for instance, who “tend to be what we call hyper vigilant to threat-related stimuli in their environments.”
To some extent all of us – particularly in the context of our overstimulated lives – live every day like it is Halloween. And that is of course very exhausting. Attention is a limited resource, and since we are primed to be on the lookout for danger, our attention, Dutton says, is “almost magically drawn to threat stimuli within our environment.” And the more we’re “attending to threat related stimuli,” Dutton says, “the more anxious it makes us.”
Abigail Marsh, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University, also focuses on the neuroscience of fear, in regard to both psychopaths and healthy people. In the video below, Marsh describes the brain chemicals and hormones responsible for fear and the accompanying fight or flight response.
As Marsh says in the video, our tendency to jump or freeze up when we are afraid can be traced to the most ancient parts of the brain, which explains why these actions are so difficult to control.
Produced by the American Chemical Society
Video by Kirk Zamieroski
Image courtesy of Shutterstock