|Fear, Anxiety and Anguish
of Cognitive Functions in the Brain: A Misleading Concept
Observations of animals and human babies have shown that we are predisposed to fear certain animals and certain situations that have proven dangerous to our species over the course of its evolution. Children do not necessarily display this fear reaction the first time they are placed in contact with the danger, but if they receive the slightest sign from the people around them that they should be afraid, they will become afraid, and the fear will be long-lasting.
Baby monkeys raised in captivity are not afraid of snakes. But if you show them a film of another monkey acting afraid in front of a snake, snakes will immediately become an object of terror for them. This same phenomenon does not occur with other objects, such as flowers. Besides snakes, other things that human beings are predisposed to fear include other reptiles, spiders, birds of prey, dogs, and heights.
But our evolutionary roots are of little use to us in responding to the things that pose real dangers for us today, such as firearms and automobiles.
|WHEN FEAR TAKES THE CONTROLS
The behavioural responses generated by fear are remarkably well preserved
in all vertebrates. For example, if a rat enters a room where there
is a cat, the rat freezes, faces the cat, then remains motionless
before trying to flee or, if it is cornered, trying to bite the cat
that is attacking it.
Humans who are frightened go through basically the same steps:
they stop what they were doing, turn toward the source of the threat,
from taking any action during the phase when they are trying
to assess the threat. Then, if their assessment confirms a threat,
they try to flee or
hide. If a confrontation is unavoidable, fighting the
threat becomes the last remaining option to try to protect the
Just like the behavioural responses to it, the physiological changes
associated with fear are very well preserved in the animal kingdom.
These of course include all the changes triggered by the sympathetic
nervous system to help us deal with the situation: faster heart
rate, faster breathing, dilated pupils, and so on. But there are
also other, more subtle phenomena, such as the suppression of pain
in the face of danger, which is well documented among soldiers
in combat, and lets us concentrate our energies on the highest
In humans, the basic range of behavioural responses to fear is
generally augmented by uniquely human ones that draw on our greater
cognitive abilities. But these unique capabilities that our human
cortex gives us can also cause us fear,
anxiety, and anguish.
People who are old enough
now to have been aware of the assassination of President
Kennedy often remember
in astonishing detail exactly where they were
and what they were doing when they heard the news. The same
thing goes for the September 11 attacks or for any other
landmark event with a heavy emotional impact.
Psychologists are very familiar with
this phenomenon of memories that remain especially clear
and resistant to being forgotten, and refer to them as "flashbulb
memories". Experiments with animals have provided
a fairly good understanding of the mechanisms underlying
such memories. For instance, experiments have shown that
injecting rats with adrenalin just before putting them
through a learning session helps them remember their tasks
Now we know that the amygdala,
when activated by a significant emotional stimulus, triggers
all sorts of bodily responses, including the release of adrenalin
by the adrenal glands. It is this adrenalin that, by a pathway
that has yet to be identified, helps memories to be encoded
more effectively in the hippocampus and the temporal lobe.
That is why we are better at remembering things that are
important to us, or in other words, things that trigger our