Learned Fears

‘Learned’ Fears

What I qualify as the physical set of fears has an instinctual basis that can be observed in humans and in animals. It is a basic response to create caution or react –either fight or flight- to a dangerous situation. What I really mean to understand is the psychological fears that do not arise due to an immediate danger. This I will call ‘learned’ fears, for they are learned by the psyche and then recreated by the body as a physical fear. So,  I will explore places and situations where fear is learned.

The first opportunity to learn a fear comes from watching other people be fearful of something. As toddlers that is how we first learn to identify dangers, however this goes beyond the physical realm. Take religion, for example, generations and generations of people instill in their toddlers fear of an esoteric retribution (hell, karma, etc…) if they do not behave in accordance to a set of rules. This fear mixes the basic threat of physical fears (pain and torment to come) with an unknown element, and is further settled by group think.

Phobias, terror and horror are amplified fears that have somehow been reinforced in a person’s mind. Traumatic events, like a fall from a high place, an accident, neglet or abuse could lead to irrational fears. When these events occur beyond a person’s control, as is the case for children, then they cannot be processed and turn into unexplained phobias. Similarly, fear that is formed in the mind before there is a coherent rational understanding of situations is set deeply into the psyche. Somehow, we absorb so much more before we learn how to put everything into words. For example a toddler learns about a concept without filtering it through words first the way we do later on in life. Hence, a fear set in a mind before there is conscious filtering and awareness, is learned first hand without a mechanism to rationalize it.

In my experience the learning of a phobia requires the mind to be in that space of consciousness that goes beyond words. Again, toddlers automatically live like that before they learn language, but we can reach that state of mind as adults through a number of ways. It is actually a very interesting state of mind where great things can happen, but as the filtering is gone, it is also a very sensitive space of mind. Even as meditation, studying, music or intense physical activity can bring on that state of mind, so can a traumatic event. So, when if in a ‘heightened’ or pure state of mind we experience fear, but do not have the chance to also process that fear in the same state of mind, the fear is engraved in the unconscious self. It won’t fully manifest itself in waking life, it will simply lurk in the background being triggered by apparently unrelated things, or everyday things that do not pose physical danger. The fight or flight response is a very strong physical response meant to help us get out of a dangerous situation but it is meant to be a temporary response, not a permanent state of being. It takes too much energy out of the body and mind, so falling into it too often and without real need leads to feeling worn and permanently tired.

Fear within the mind and brain also reinforces itself, once a fear is learned and visited and revisited it will become stronger. I’ll look for the quote later, but I read a study that says that the brain is like any other muscle, the parts that you use the most are the parts that are most developed. So, whatever you devote your attention to, forms pathways between neurons in your brain; when you repeat activities those pathways are reinforced and grow stronger. This is a physical fact that has been observed in science, the study showed that taxi drivers in London have overly developed the area of the brain related to spatial knowledge since they are required to memorize all the streets and possible routes in the city to obtain a taxi driver’s permit. Once a fear is learned, even the threat of repeating the situation causes the area of the brain that responds to fear to light up the same way as if the situation were actually happening again.

Next time I sit down to write, I’ll explore the relationship between different types of fear, since I have an inkling that fear feeds on fear…

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