I’m absolutely terrified of moths. That’s called ‘mottephobia’, in case you were wondering.
My mum is too, now I think of it. What’s my point? There’s nothing even remotely scary about moths. I’ll be the first to admit it and yet I’m also the first one running for the door when I see one on the wall. We’re all afraid of something, be it moths, spiders or heights. I wanted to take a closer look into why we all have fears and why they’re usually completely irrational.
Fear needs no introduction. It’ll leave you breathless, paranoid and possibly sweaty. A lot of the time you don’t realise what is going on until you’ve come back down from your panic and regained the ability to control your rational thoughts.
It’s long been a live-by phrase of mine that in order to know why something happens, you have to know how it works and what it really is. I think by now we all know what fear is. Anxiety, paranoia, nervousness. It’s that doubt you experience before giving a presentation or the butterflies in your stomach before asking somebody out. That aspect of fear needs very little explanation, so I’ll move right on to how it happens.
Cells in the brain are constantly transferring information and triggering responses to stimuli around us. Dozens of parts of the brain are at least peripherally involved in fear (which explains why it can have such a powerful impact). However, certain parts of the brain take on a leading role in creating a fear response: the thalamus, which decides where to send incoming sensory data; the sensory cortex, which interprets said data; the hippocampus, which retrieves conscious memories and processes stimuli to establish context; the amygdala, which determines whether the stimulus is a possible threat and stores fear memories (to be accessed by the hippocampus at a later date); and the hypothalamus, which activates the fight or flight response.
Placed in that order, the list of parts of the brain I’ve just given make up one of the two ways the brain processes fear. The above is the longer, more rational way of judging whether or not something is a threat: the high road. This process makes a well-considered decision as to whether or not you should be afraid. The other process is called the low road, and is quicker (though the two happen simultaneously) and safer. This misses out the amygdala and the hippocampus, meaning you have no past memories to interpret whether or not you should be afraid and nothing actually looking at the sensory data you’re receiving to decide whether it’s a possible danger to you.
The data is sent straight to the thalamus, and because the signals it receives may be dangerous, they go straight to the amygdala, which takes action to protect you by sending impulses to the hypothalamus, to activate the fight or flight response.
This is why you usually feel a sudden rush of terror for a split second, before realising that something is perfectly safe. That’s the low road panicking and trying to save you, and the high road determining that actually you’ve nothing to be afraid of, and shutting off your natural fear response.
In a crisis, it’ll be the low road that immediately saves your life, and the high road that stops you from going out of your mind with fear. Fight or flight is basically the immediate decision about whether you stay and fight or run away (I usually choose the latter because things can’t hurt me if I’m not there).
That’s the simplest way of explaining fear that I can think of, without completely excluding all scientific value. After all, I do aim to teach just a little bit of science to people every now and then.
Obviously, the processes that create fear are perfectly natural in most situations. If a shady looking character appears opposite you in a dark alleyway one night, seemingly toting something under his coat, you probably do have something to be afraid of. Walking through empty streets at night is unnerving enough as it is without an eery man appearing from the darkness. That’s understandable, natural and therefore not interesting, though. The thing I’m really curious about is why we’re frightened of things that pose no threat whatsoever: Irrational fear. Why is it that humans are afraid of spiders and moths when they can do next to nothing to hurt us? I don’t mean poisonous spiders as we don’t really get them in this country and if we did, fear would be an acceptable response; I don’t know anybody who would be happy for a poisonous spider to inject them with venom because they don’t want to be hurt or face the possibility of death if they can’t be cured afterwards.
Irrational fears have a few different causes but perhaps the most obvious is trauma. You have a bad experience with something – let’s say you got stuck in an elevator - and that scared you. It was a traumatic experience and it stressed you out. There’s another name for this: Post traumatic stress disorder. After a while that fear response becomes hard-wired and you experience it every time you’re faced with something that might put you in the same situation again. It’s your body’s natural response to protect you. It basically thinks, “That was dangerous and I hated it last time, so I’m going to prevent that from ever happening again by triggering a crippling fear response every single time you’re faced with it”.
Is that really an irrational fear, though? I don’t think something can be irrational if there’s a reason behind it. The fear itself may be of something that is essentially harmless, but if it’s caused you a great deal of stress in the past then fear seems the logical response, really. That’s fairly rational, wouldn’t you agree? I still can’t understand what sort of traumatic experience could lead someone to be scared of buttons, but who am I to judge?
Another cause for ‘irrational’ fears that I don’t think is all too irrational, in essence, is knowledge. It’s fact that intelligent people are more depressed, more likely to do drugs and are more fearful of things than blissfully unaware members of society. I make a fantastic example of this: I’m absolutely horrified of flying. The last time I went on a plane, I had an anxiety attack. I’m not afraid of heights – hell, I’m still hoping I might get the change to go bungee jumping or sky-diving one day – but I’ve watched so many episodes of Air Crash Investigation that it doesn’t matter how many times my dad reminds me that I’m more likely to die falling out of bed than I am in a plane crash (way to worry me every time I wake up in the morning). That’s true, actually: the odds of dying from falling out of bed are one in two million. Compare that to the chance you’ll die in a plane crash, which is one in 11 million. It’s still unlikely, but now I’m terrified of getting up every morning (that could just be a severe case of dysania, now I think about it, and I’m using the odds as an excuse to get a nice lie-in). My point is this: If you’re knowledgeable about a particular subject, like planes, you know how everything functions and where all the weak spots are. You know everything that could possibly go wrong and you’re estimating the chances that might happen over any of the other hundreds of possibilities. It’s true that ignorance is bliss, because somebody who didn’t know so much wouldn’t have anywhere near as much to be afraid of, since they don’t know what they should be afraid of.
Here’s another relevant little fact about this one: you can tell somebody’s an idiot because they don’t know they’re an idiot. You don’t know what you don’t know, but if you’re able to acknowledge that there is a lot you don’t know, you’re smart enough to realise it. If you don’t know something could happen, you can’t be afraid of it. I curse myself every day for my once-religious viewing of Air Crash Investigation. The reason these fears are irrational is because statistically speaking, any of the things you’re knowledgeably afraid of are so unlikely it’s not worth thinking about. That doesn’t stop me, though.
The final possible cause of irrational fears is influence. It’s proven that if you spend a lot of time with someone you’ll start to pick up their habits and adopt some of their speech patterns (I’m awful for talking like my friends). That goes for fears, too. I spent a lot of time with my mum when I was a little girl, and as I mentioned earlier, she doesn’t like moths. That’s probably a bit of an understatement, but that’s what I grew up with. When I was younger, every time there was a moth in the living room, my mum would scream and shout my dad in to kill it or chase it out.
I didn’t quite understand why she was afraid of them to begin with, but after repeatedly being exposed to this extreme response, I began to behave that way too. There must be something bad about them for her to be so terrified, so maybe I ought to be afraid of them, too. That was how I thought about it.
But I haven’t picked up all of her fears. She’s also afraid of butterflies, pigeons and bats. I think it’s the flapping she doesn’t like and although I haven’t developed any of those fears (I think bats are adorable) I’ve definitely got my mottephobia from her. There’s not really anything about them to be scared of but I was so used to seeing my mum scream and run when one came anywhere near that I thought that was the best way to respond to moths, so now I do it too. Quite literally. My dad and my brother are both afraid of spiders (if there’s a spider in the living room my dad’s the one running and screaming) and I imagine that also has something to do with influence, as neither of them has any bad experiences with spiders, just as neither me nor my mum have had any traumatic experiences with moths.
Of course, there must be examples of fear that is completely irrational and has no specific cause. Sometimes you’ll feel anxious over nothing or something just frightens you for no real reason. I have no reason to be afraid of The Lizard (the villain from The Amazing Spiderman, released in 2012). It’s one of my favourite movies, I love lizards, reptiles and all-such animals – I’m determined to have a pet snake called Satchel and two geckos called Rocky and Lexxi one day – but still that villain terrifies me. There’s no reason for me to be. Nobody in my family is afraid of lizards and I’ve never had a bad experience with a lizard. I imagine there are plenty of other people who have irrational fears that started in exactly the same way: something just... looked scary. So they became fearful of it.
I don’t completely understand this one, because it doesn’t make sense for your brain to trigger a fear response to something that you’ve no strong emotional connection to. That said, it does happen, and my best guess is that it’s to do with some sort of chemical balance, or there’s a genetic influence in there somewhere. However, I feel this is a good time to bring up the fear of heights. Though it’s named as an irrational fear, it’s far from being irrational.
If you’re stood at a height, looking down, it’s evolutionary that you be afraid of the possible drop which may or may not kill you. Though a lot of people do suffer from a fear of heights with no prior trauma or influence, I think this fear has a deep-seated cause written into our very beings. We can’t fly, therefore we don’t want to fall. It’s described as a fear of heights because you only become fearful at heights, but for the most part the more accurate definition would be the fear of falling. There are some fears that present themselves as being irrational, with no obvious cause, but there may indeed be a survival instinct still in place, to keep us alive, manifesting itself as a pointless fear.
I think those are the most likely causes of irrational fears, although there are, of course, others. Every individual could have their own unique cause for fear, but since I’m not seven billion people myself I can’t speak for everyone.
For every cause, there’s an interesting phobia. Just for fun I had a look through some phobias and picked out the ones I thought were the most unusual or intriguing. These are a few of the ones I thought were interesting:
*Acrophobia, fear of heights (not vertigo, as it’s so commonly referred to).
*Chaetophobia, fear of hair.
*Peladophobia, fear of bald people.
*Koumpounophobia, fear of buttons.
*Tetraphobia, fear of the number four.
*Turophobia, fear of cheese.
*Xanthophobia, fear of the colour yellow.
*And my favourite, anatidaephobia, the fear that wherever you are in the world, a duck is always watching you.
I didn’t make that last one up, although I know it sounds unbelievable. It’s a genuine fear and the fact that it has a proper name must mean that there are a few people who suffer from it.
While we can endeavour to understand how the human brain works, I don’t think we’ll fully understand some of its processes. Fear as a response to genuinely terrifying, dodgy-looking men in otherwise empty alleys is understandable and doesn’t need much researching.
Fear as a response to having to button up your shirt, or the fly on your new jeans? I don’t understand it myself, and though we can try to pick apart the functions that might lead to it, it’s related to an individual and only they really know how they feel and why they might feel that way.
There are too many individual minds in the world for us to appreciate the complexity of each and every one in the way that they all deserve.
It’s still mightily enjoyable to try, though, and I still like to do a bit of research on phobias every now and then, even though it might not be getting me anywhere.
Story by Ruby Hryniszak (pictured, inset).
Follow Ruby on Twitter, @13eautifulLife.