Like other emotions, the phenomenon of fear is studied and interpreted from the most varied perspectives: natural and social sciences, the arts and popular culture. The motif of fear is a constant and inexhaustible incentive for man’s reasoning, investigation and creation. Fear is also the key element of oral literature and the traditional transfer of knowledge. And thus, it forms part of the human mind and thoughts, on which institutions and traditions are based and rest.
the biology of fear
From an evolutionary standpoint, fear is first of all functional. The development of a defensive mechanism is a precondition that enables beings to survive. The primary function of fear is to cause confrontation with a stimulus which is perceived as a possible threat. A being without the ability to feel fear will have less chance of survival and reproducing in comparison to a being which has that ability.
Some studies interpret that the fear of snakes and spiders was formed by evolution. During the evolution of mammals, since ancient times, snakes, as well as other potentially deadly creatures, have represented a frequent threat to their lives. Creatures that have developed a defence mechanism against snakes are considered to be more successful when it comes to the development of offspring in relation to those creatures whose defence mechanisms are less well developed.
the neurobiology of fear
On the neurological side, fear is generated and controlled via a specific nervous system which is located in the brain. The amygdala – an almond-shaped structure of nuclei responsible for the regulation of the senses represents the central part of this networked nervous system. Via the primary sensory receptors and thalamus the amygdala is stimulated and sends signals to the hypothalamus and the hypophysis which induce the adrenal gland to secrete stress hormones whereby the body prepares itself for urgent reaction – to defend itself against danger or to flee.
Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released in great quantities: the nervous system works faster, the heart beats harder, blood pressure rises, the pupils expand, the facial expression changes and the palms begin to sweat.
The fear network in mammals. Plamper, J., Lazier B. (2012) Fear: Across the Disciplines, Fig. 2.1.
the psychology of fear
Fear can be learnt, in other words, what we fear can be conditioned. What is also important are the very perception and the subjective experience at the moment when an individual is experiencing a state of fear. The sources of our fears can also emerge from subconscious unresolved conflicts of our unconscious, emotional and instinctive part of our personality and the rational. The boundary between the “normal” and the “abnormal” of fear is not clearly defined. A problem arises when the degree of fear or anxiety is disproportionate in relation to some threat.