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1.      Fear, like all other emotions, simply happens to you. You don't need to tell your brain to feel scared. Your brain decides that for you.

It's quite likely that at least one of the photos above freaked you out a bit.  In fact, the collage of 3 photos you see above are of Philippe Petit, who walked across the twin towers 110 storeys high, over an inch-thick wire, with no safety equipment. The movie re-enactment "The Walk",  literally made moviegoers leave the cinemas in fear; several ended up in bathrooms, generously introducing their semi-digested meals to unsuspecting sinks. Quite the sensational story.)

 

But also notice how it happened. You didn't need to tell your brain to feel 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. Furthermore, fear strikes even when we know it is coming. The moviegoers above knew that they were going to watch scenes of a guy walking across a wire at extreme heights - yet they still got scared out of the cinema. 

 

So why do you feel fear, even when we are safe, even when we know what is going to happen next? How can this be possible? 

 

This brings us back to the Amygdala, the part of our brain dedicated to fear.  

 

 

 

 

 

Your brain has an established process* to accurately determine information. For example:

  • when we see something, the signal from our eyes is sent to the Thalamus.

  • The Thalamus is like a central control - all incoming information goes through the Thalamus.

  • The Thalamus then decides which is the most suitable part of the brain to process this information, so that we can accurately make sense of it.

  • In this case, since the signal comes from our eyes, the Thalamus sends the info to the visual cortex. 

But this process can be hijacked! When we see something that seems dangerous, for example, a snake, the Thalamus might decide that it would take too long to go through the normal process.

  • Because there might be danger, the Thalamus decides to send the signal straight to the Amygdala (as we have learnt, the Amygdala processes fear, anger, aggression, and anxiety).

  • The Amygdala can also process incoming information, but with much less accuracy. It is far more likely to perceive something as dangerous, so that your body is jolted into action to run away from the danger.

  • The normal process that determines information is hijacked by the Amygdala -  Accuracy is sacrificed for speed, so that faster, more urgent action can be taken. 

*Click here for a more comprehensive version of what happens when we see something, and how the amygdala hijack happens. 

 

 

 


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The Amygdala Hijack is aptly displayed in the gif above. The lady was invited to be part of an animal show at the zoo. As part of the show, guests are given the chance to interact with animals up-close. One segment has zookeepers bringing out a large python-  you can the lady's reaction. If the lady were to review this scene, she would realise she was in no danger - no zoo would have a routine where guests could be harmed; besides, there were so many people around including many zookeepers, and pythons are not aggressive animals. But as you can see, the fear had already kicked in, and it's "Danger! Danger! Run Away! Run!!!"

In other words, the Amygdala Hijack is sort of a "better safe than sorry" policy. It would rather you run away (even to later realise that the danger was not real) than to risk not acting fast enough and getting harmed or killed. This explains why we jump when someone throws a rubber toy snake at us, or why we feel scared when we see a picture of a spider or watch a movie that deals with heights. In reality, we are not in danger.

 

But our reactions, our thoughts, and our behaviours are based on our perception of reality rather than reality itself. And our perception of reality is biased towards safety rather than accuracy. 

Is it really dangerous for us to try something we've never done before or to make a big change in our lives? That's something we have to figure out for ourselves. What we really must avoid though, is to be paralysed by our fears;

our fears which come so very naturally and quickly before we even realise;

our fears which are based on our perceptions rather than actual reality;

our fears which are very convincing, that wants us to always take the safest route even when there is no danger.  

 

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