The Science of Fear: Animals

ATLANTA -- This is part of a special series, Science of Fear, that will air Tuesday-Friday on Atlanta Alive. The Fernbank Museum and Emory University assistant professor and V.A. research scientist, Seth Norrholm, explain the science behind the human reaction to fear. You can explore more by visiting Fernbank's Goose Bumps exhibit open through January 4, 2015.

It was my nightmare inside a glass box: a dozen cockroaches hissing and wiggling and waiting to crawl up my nose. OK, maybe not that last part.

When Emory Assistant Psychology Professor and V.A. research scientist Seth Norrholm suggested I slip my hand into a box that may lead to that creepy, crawly nightmare, I hesitated. It's a response that was programmed into me stretching back to my caveman ancestors.

All fears can fit into three categories: innate fears, learned fears, and preparatory fear.

"An innate fear is something that you're born with, and it's a survival instinct type of fear," Norrholm explained. Fear of animals and insects fall into that category. Among the most common fears: spiders, cockroaches, and snakes.

"Our ancestors were afraid of these things, because when they were trying to survive in the natural environment, these were potentially poisonous and life-threatening. It was very important to have a defensive response to them. And that carries with us through today," Norrholm said.

But, if it's an innate fear, wouldn't we all be afraid of those things? How are some people able to overcome innate fears? An exterminator doesn't shriek when he sees a cockroach.

"We all have individual differences," Norrholm explained. "There is a baseline level of fear, but a lot of us are able to overcome that, because as human beings, we have higher order cognitive functions. We can learn to suppress that fear."


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