Fear. It’s there, just waiting to get you!


At Halloween in the US, everything we fear gets lumped together with our dead ancestors. A night that once reminded us to recognize that those who have passed before us might still be with us has now become a generalized expression of fear. In our ripe imaginations, peeled grapes become the texture of eyeballs without a head, cold spaghetti might be someone’s dead brain or guts, the sound of rusty hinges makes our skin crawl as we anticipate something dangerous coming for us, and banging doors make us jump out of our skin.

It's amazingly easy to frighten us humans, and that is because fear is there from the moment we are born, just waiting to be programmed into our experience of life. But the experience of basic fear, the anxious and deeply uncomfortable arousal in our bodies, the intense desire to escape, is something we share with all mammals. It's there for them when they are born, as it is with us; fear is part of us, looking for a reason to be, ready to protect us from harm, to keep us alive. And fear is very lively, however uncomfortable it may be as an experience!

group flight.jpg

All animals are genetically preset to experience fear. That little section of brain, the amygdala, functions from the minute we are born, whether we are a human or a reptile, to register the intensely uncomfortable sensations of fear and rage. (You might contrast this with the ability to acquire language, something that comes much later in human development, at about two years old.) Fear is there, part of us, part of every animal, just kind of looking for an excuse to be. . . and then, of course, the world provides scary things and we begin to create our personal program of fear. If programmable fear sounds like basically a bad idea to you, consider this: whales are animals whose fear has not been programmed by constant experience. Whales are huge. They have not had much to fear: their fear went sort of dormant because for millions of years, they didn't have much to fear. And here's the wretched news: that makes them vulnerable to tiny soft little humans with ships and harpoons. And this is how humans have been able to hunt them almost to extinction. In short, fear is useful because it protects us from danger, even if it also protects us from things that are not dangerous.

Listen to this description of the wolf pup White Fang, written by Jack London and published in 1906: “Never, in his brief cave life, had he encountered anything of which to be afraid. Yet fear was in him. It had come down to him from a remote ancestry through a thousand lives. It was a heritage he had received directly. . . through all the generations of wolves that had gone before. Fear! . . . that legacy of the Wild which no animal may escape. So the gray cub knew fear, though he knew not the stuff of which fear was made.”

But humans elaborate the basic experience of fear more than other animals do. As neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp notes, “we humans learn to fear more things, past and future, than a little mouse can. . . . In multiple senses, we humans are the most fearful creatures on the face of the earth.” This has everything to do with the complexity of our programming. Other animals can experience PTSD, as we do, with intense or prolonged exposure to fearful stimuli, and they can become locked in horror. I have seen it in a rhino whose horn was poached by humans, leaving her to die terribly wounded. (She was in fact rescued by other humans, who saved her life through many surgeries and constant care. But even their devotion could not save her from being locked in fear. That's how PTSD works: it powerfully programs our capacity to feel fear.) But more often, they escape from danger, shake themselves, and avoid the places and circumstances associated with the threatening event. Then they busy themselves with what is present in their worlds.

Back to my underlying question: can we humans understand what it's like to be a mouse, a gazelle, a wolf pup? Of course we can. The wide open eyes, dry mouth, tight gut, muscles drawing the body away from something dangerous that we feel is the same thing that they feel when in danger. When the leopard makes that indescribable sound—not a roar, but a loud whisper that says I am here—the other animals' bodies go there. The difference between us and them is that it's much more common for us to feel this intense fear in the face of things imagined. But we can learn to use the adaptations the other animals use—to “not go there” with our thoughts, to shake our anxiety out physically, to orient ourselves to the present. Yes, we can understand. . . and even more, we can learn from the other animals.