Our brains are wired for survival.
Our favourite tool for survival? Fear.
Imagine if you lived 10,000 years ago. It's nightfall, and you're lying on a soft patch of grass about to fall asleep. Then you hear a rustling in the bushes.
Your mouth goes dry (as it does today before we deliver an important speech or ). Your heart-rate increases. Unconscious to you, hormones (epinephrine, testosterone) are being cued up and produced. Your eyes dilate to see better. Your blood pressure increases which enable you to take defensive action.
You spring up from a sleepy state, ready to make a run for it. It could be a sabretooth tiger, waiting to make you dinner.
Fear - keeping you and your ancestors alive. Since we've been... alive.
Fear and anxiety are the free advisors that life bestows on you once you're born. They stick with you tirelessly through thick and thin (whether you like it or not), always eager to yell advice so loudly that you cannot but hear it.
For most of our history, humans were not at the top of the food chain. Hey, think about it. It was pretty easy for our ancestors to die in the past. If fear had not kicked in immediately, your ancestor would have been wounded or killed by the predator before he/she was even able to make sense of it. Fear and anxiety motivated our ancestors to run and find safer locations to live in. It kept our ancestors from doing something stupid, like jumping down from a high place because it's faster than climbing down.
Fear and anxiety have played an important role in allowing the human race to survive and thrive. There is nothing more important than staying alive. And so we have gotten really good at developing fear and anxiety.
Fear is such an important part of human evolution that we have a part of
our brain dedicated just for it.
Fear is so important to us that biologically, there is a part of your brain (and quite a major part at that) specifically dedicated to fear and anxiety (together with their close cousins, anger and aggression). This part of your brain is called the amygdala, which functions like a major interchange, with priority routes to many other parts of your brain.
When the amygdala is triggered, you feel fear. And, if our amygdala stops functioning, we lose the capacity for fear. As with the fascinating case of S.M., aka the woman with no fear.
It's quite likely that at least one of the photos above freaked you out a bit. And it just happened. You didn't need to tell your brain to feel fear. You just felt it.
(In fact, the last photo was that of Philippe Petit, who walked across the twin towers 110 storeys high, over an inch thick wire. Quite the sensational story. "The Walk", was a movie re-enactment of Petit's feat. A movie which literally made moviegoers vomit and leave in fear. )
Here's the interesting bit though. You are safe and sound where you are. It's not likely that some bug or snake or spider or ghost is going to attack you. And you are in no danger of falling off a building. And all these people in the photos above survived unscathed. So why do you feel fear? Why is your heart beating a bit faster, your pupils dilating, and you emotionally feeling more agitated?
Well as it turns out, fear (and anxiety and aggression and anger) are emotions, and this is just how emotions work.
Emotions, like fear, just happen to you. You don't need to tell your
brain to feel scared. Your brain decides to be scared first.
In the photo above, we have all 3 of Charlie's Angels with some random dude. Random dude happened to be the director of Charlie's Angels, Joseph McGinty Nichol, more commonly known as McG. (Sadly, this next story is not about the Angels but McG; sometimes I do question my choice of stories but ok, let's move on).
In July 2004, McG sat in his car outside the Burbank Airport. Following the success of Charlie's Angels, Warner Brothers had hired McG to shoot the new Superman movie. He spent a year preparing for the movie, during which Warner sunk in more than US$20 million into the project. That day, a private jet bound for Australia was prepared for the director, where 1,000 people (actors, production crew, etc) were waiting for McG to arrive and start filming.
McG never got on the plane. He was paralysed by fear.
His team did everything to convince him. They told him the statistics. Only 1 in 11 million people are killed in flight accidents, compared to 1 in 5,000 in a car crash. McG was more likely to die driving home from the airport than taking the plane to Australia (statistically, driving home was actually 2,000 times more likely to kill him).
But fear is a formidable beast not easily tamed. No statistic was more real than how he felt. This applies to us too, in our daily lives. Fear is paralysing. And sometimes, fear overpowers our logic.
But what exactly triggered the fear? Was it really flying? Or was it something deeper? McG took some time to think:
“In reality, it was a control issue: Whenever I got outside my comfort zone, I just felt like I was going to die. When you get on a plane, you transfer your destiny, at least for the next few hours, to the pilot and crew. You cannot control the plane’s path or its speed. You cannot leave the aircraft at will if you get tired of the crying children or your seatmate’s elbow shoving. In fact, the only choice available to you is pretzels or peanuts. Moreover, you have very limited information. You don’t know if those bumps you’re experiencing are from routine turbulence or something to be concerned about. You don’t know if the pilot is tired or alert, or if you’re going to arrive on time. The loss of control is a disturbing sensation."
People are stressed and anxious when their ability to control their environment is removed.
More importantly, what causes fear might not always be what it seems to be. Would McG had been afraid if he was trained as a pilot like he trained to be a driver? In the same way, could we sometimes misunderstand what is it that we actually fear? Are our fears justified, especially since they happen to us so naturally?
1. Emotions, like fear, just happen to you. You don't need to tell your brain to feel scared. Your brain decides that for you (and usually very quickly), and you are merely informed about it.
2. We fear what is uncertain
3. We fear what we are not good at
4. We fear what we know is painful
5. We fear losing what we possess