Thursday, March 7, 2013

Science behind Fear

Why do we have fears?
What happens inside our brains when we feel fear?

How do we overcome it?

Fear is a natural emotional respond towards a threat, such as pain and danger. It is innate, which means that it is there since the day we were born, and it is there in every human beings anywhere, at anytime. It exists in the age where sabre-tooth tiger still roam the earth, and it still exist today in the modern world. The thing is, unlike 3000 years ago where sabre-tooth tiger could be lurking anywhere around the bush, the threats we face today are rarely life-threatening. Some of our fears are not even justifiable (a research done shows that 90% of what we fear and worry about never happens!), but the emotional respond towards it is the same as being face to face with a sabre-tooth tiger. We fear taking responsibilities, speaking in public, starting on a new project, asking for a raise, taking that exam, leaving a job that you hate, or even talking to that girl (or guy) that you feel that you would spend the rest of your life with. I am going to take speaking in public for example. Some people equate the thought of it to impending death (I am serious). Just by thinking about it, a burst of adrenaline rushes through our veins, our hearts beats faster, our breaths become shallow, our hands become cold. This is our body response towards fear. Many people let these natural responds stop them from achieving their wildest dreams. Most people know that effectively conveying their ideas to others in a meeting, or in a speech, is necessary step towards a achieving their success, but because of fear, like a caveman confronted with a sabre-tooth tiger, they run away.

Now here is the science behind fear. Fear, along with joy, sadness and anger are part of our basic or innate emotions. They are controlled by a small part of our brain called the amygdala.

Research has shown rats with toxoplasmosis, or simply put, a rat infected by a parasite that destroys their brain, specifically the amygdala, show less fear, including towards cats. (I think in the cartoon show 'Tom & Jerry', Jerry had his amygdala destroyed by toxoplasmosis). This behavior, as a consequence, makes them easily caught and eaten by cats. That is lucky for the parasite, which uses cats as their permanent home. So what if we destroy our 'fear centre' in the amygdala so we would be well on our way towards success? Yes, we would be able to speak in public effortlessly, we would leave the jobs that we hate in pursuit for a better one, and we would go on and talk to that girl who we will spend the rest of our lives with. However, we would also be jumping out of skyscrapers without a parachute on a daily basis, believing we could fly, we would go on for a leisure walk, found out and find a big fat guy across the street, and tell him: "Hey, I think you are big, fat, and stupid", and get a punch right in the face. So you see, destroying our fear does not work. Fear is necessary. Yes, it is necessary, but don not let it stop you from doing the things that are necessary for a better life!

So how do we overcome fear and do the necessary steps toward a better life? The first step is to realize that your fear is actually unfounded (skip this step if your fear is life-threatening, like the fear of jumping off an airplane without a parachute, or the fear of jumping into a pool full of crocodiles at the zoo). In 2004, a research was done at Columbia University where two groups of people were shown fear stimuli (like pictures of vampires, snakes, spiders, ghosts, you name it!) for different periods of times. One group, let us name this group A, was shown the picture so fast and short in duration, that they did not get the chance to really observe and consciously think about them. The other, group B, was shown for a little longer period of time, giving the subject a little more time to consciously perceive the pictures. Researchers observed that the people in group B experienced less 'fear activity' in the amygdala. They are less fearful, although the fear stimulus is the same! Fear is almost entirely autonomic, or in other words, we do not consciously trigger it. However, the research suggests that we can consciously control our fear responses by thinking and justifying the fear itself. The people in group B are less fearful because they consciously think and justify their fear and think: "This is not worth all the fear, they are just pictures", while the people in group A did not get the chance to do that. They rely on the autonomic fear response. This helps 3000 years ago when it is practical to just run away instead of observing the color of the sabre-tooth tiger, and what a sharp teeth it has, but today, running away from our daily fears is usually not live-saving.

So taking it into our daily lives, justify your fears. What would happen if you ask for that raise? The worst thing could happen is that you got rejected, and you are salary is as it was before. No boss has ever cut an employee's salary simple because he asked for a raise. You lose nothing. At least you tried, and your boss knows you wanted a raise, and would think about it in the future. What would happen if you asked someone out for a lunch, and you got rejected? You do not have anyone to have lunch to begin with, and again, you lose nothing, and surely, you are not dead! So think and justify your fears, tell your brain that it is okay to do scary things that is necessary for a better you. When we think carefully about our fears instead of just letting it run its autonomic course, the 'fear activity' inside our amygdala decreases. We feel less fearful, and ready to take on life challenges!