After reading this page, you will understand what causes fear. In addition to the fear conditioning induced by our cognitive biases, we are continuously exposed to the bias in the media for reporting mainly bad news. Is it any wonder that most people live in a never-ending state of fear?
Let me explain.
All animals are designed with an elaborate system to ensure their survival and, being part of the animal kingdom, we are no different. This survival instinct was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon in 1929 and has become known as our acute stress or fight-or-flight response.
This fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs when we perceive that we are under threat of attack.
It all starts in the almond-shaped neural structure situated in the anterior part of the temporal lobe of the cerebrum called the amygdala. The amygdala’s job is to continuously look for anything that might threaten our survival.
When we are faced with a perceived life-threatening situation, the amygdala sets in motion a series of chemical and electrical activities ensuring that our response to the perceived danger is immediate.
This is what happens.
The perceived threat stimulates the amygdala into a state of high alert.
The amygdala triggers a neural response in the hypothalamus. This is followed by the activation of the pituitary gland and the secretion of the adrenocorticotrophic hormone. The adrenal gland is activated almost at the same time and adrenalin is released. Chemical messengers are released and this results in the production of the hormone cortisol which increases blood pressure, blood sugar and suppresses the immune system.
These reactions all combine to produce an immediate boost of energy. Our heart rate increases, our eyes dilate for improved vision, the nerves fire faster and our skin cools down as blood rushes to our muscles to allow for a faster reaction time.
We are in fight-or-flight mode and it all happens in an instant.
There is no time for our pattern recognition system to scan our memory bank and to look for a similar situation, identify the threat and then consider possible solutions to neutralize it.
In fight-or-flight mode the brain takes a short cut and the reaction is immediate. It has to be, we depend on it for our survival!
The response is so powerful that, once turned on, it is almost impossible to shut down.
The system was designed for local and present threats and this is exactly the reason why, it poses a problem in our contemporary world.
Let me illustrate what I mean by “local and present” threats, with an example.
I am surfing in the ocean and I see a fin above the water. I instinctively jump onto my surf board and start paddling towards the shore before my brain has had time to compute: dolphin, not shark.
Once I realize that I am not in danger, I calm down and go back to catching waves. The perceived danger happened in this physical location, it was a present danger, but it has now passed.
Nowadays, things are different. Most of today’s perceived dangers are probabilistic but our amygdala cannot tell the difference.
Probabilistic dangers are not physical and most of them are not even real. They are based on what we believe might happen to us in the future.
But herein lies the problem.
The amygdala is programmed to always look for something to fear and not to shut off until the potential danger has vanished completely.
But probabilistic dangers never vanish!
Once the amygdala starts hunting for bad news, it is going to find bad news. and this is what causes fear.
It is not difficult because bad news sells and the media is continuously competing for the amygdala’s attention.
Turn on your television, pick up a magazine or newspaper, look up at an advertising billboard, read your internet news-feeds or switch on your radio and you are being constantly bombarded with stories of doom and gloom.
The result is a brain convinced that is living in a state of siege.
In addition to the onslaught of bad news, we have acquired preconceptions which corroborate our belief that the day of reckoning is just around the corner.
These preconceptions are our cognitive biases which I explain in the next chapter. Are you beginning to understand what causes fear? Click on the link at the bottom of this page to learn about our cognitive biases.