January 28, 2006

On Fear I: Functions of Fear

Writing about web page http://www.ntv.ru/gordon/archive/10996/

What is Fear and what are the causes of Fear? In what ways can Fear be constructive and destructive? How to cope with Fear? How is human Fear different from that of animals? Could aggression, anger and cruelty be manifestations of Fear in their essence?

We all fear, which makes Fear about the most common and the most natural emotion we experience. Fear can be constructive, but can also be dangerous to the point where it leads to decay of personality. Fear has many degrees and correlates with many other emotions like anger or obsession.

The outstanding Russian physiologist Pavlov defined Fear as a ‘natural reflex; passively defensive reaction accompanied by slight disruption of brain functions’. Fear is based on the instinct of self-preservation and is therefore, of defensive kind. The feeling of Fear commonly occurs with shifts in the work of the nervous system, resulting in changes in heart rate, blood pressure, secretion of stomach acid. In the most general sense, the feeling of Fear is a reaction to a threat. The two most universal and at the same time fatal threats are death and crash of life values.

In their article The Psychology and Physiology of Fear, Scherbatikh and Nozdrachev define three principal functions of Fear.

On the surface level, Fear is a rather uncomfortable experience, that often upsets people, immobilises and may cause psychosomatic disorders. However, Fear was first generated in the process of evolution as a defence mechanism against threats from the nature. Later, with the creation and establishment of human society, many manifestations of fear have become rudimentary and inadequate. Pavlov wrote about our ancestors: “They had pure and straightforward business relations with the nature and its inhabitants. They were always either on the run or in a fight, both involving muscles”. This explains the set of symptoms Fear has engrained into human organism that instantly provides the thought-to-be necessary blood supply to muscles and mobilises the available energy within the body.

This would be the positive-constructive function of Fear. The ‘complex’ of Fear mobilises the energy that can come in handy in coping with threats in critical situations. This is mainly achieved by the influx of adrenalin in blood that supplies muscles with extra oxygen and minerals. The subsequent pailing of the skin is the most obvious indication of the effect of adrenalin: it forces blood to flow back from the surface of the body and stomach to be redistributed in muscles. Other Fear-caused reflexes seen in humans and animals had also been of targeted use: ‘hair standing up at the back of one’s neck (or on the head)’ was once designed to scare off the potential attacker, while the so-called ‘bear’s disease’ (upset stomach leading to excretion) reduced one’s body weight and confused the aggressor in case of necessary retreat.

The second function of Fear is in the strong negative emotions caused by pain or other unpleasant experiences. Miller in his classical experiments on mice proved Fear can be cultivated easily by putting live organisms through such unpleasant experiences. The memory of acute pain stamps itself on the subconscious of the organism essentially serving as preventative measure against encountering the cause of the pain again.

Finally, the third case when Fear arouses is in the situations when not enough information is available for one to make a weighted decision. Here, Fear dictates the strategy. Fear in this case protects the individual from both possible biological and social threats. It is in such cases that people’s organism naturally opens to and relies on a broader sphere of signals (what we could call 'become more sensitive'). Such effort may seem excessive and unnecessary, however, it serves to ensure the person takes in and considers every tiny detail in the evaluation of situation that may, in turn, save one’s life. This can also explain the nature of shyness.

So what does happen in a human body when Fear overtakes? Initially, one’s sympathetic nervous system activates, mobilising the available energy in the body and restructuring the work of all bodily organs, preparing for physical activity. This causes sudden increase in heartbeat, enlarged pupils, slows down excretion of acids and fluids (saliva) and other symptoms. At the same time, the endocrine system produces an influx of adrenalin, which narrows veins supplying the skin with blood, and in general acting similarly to sympathetic nervous system, dubbing its functions.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Interesting. Bring on part 2.

    28 Jan 2006, 11:10

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