Sunday, October 26, 2014

What Are You So Afraid Of?

By AKIKO BUSCH, NYT, OCT. 25, 2014

A TIME of year when we celebrate and indulge in what frightens us may be a good moment to consider how fear begins. It could be anything: a sound, a dog’s bark or bite, some infant terror of being left alone, darkness, a taste, some memory, the unknown, the unseen, the known, the seen. Almost always, its origins are unclear.

My own fear of snakes might have started when I was 3, in a garden in Bangkok, in the klong, a rainwater ditch where I was playing. A highly venomous, six-foot banded krait glided alongside me. My mother, watching from a balcony above, was unable to reach me, but she called for my older brother, who picked me up and lifted me out of the trench. I remember nothing of this. But my mother told me the story.

I wonder if my enduring panic half a century later at the rustle of even the smallest garter snake in the grass is based on some suppressed memory of the event, or on the story of the event. Or is it possibly some genetic inheritance of the fear that centuries of humans have had of the reptile world? Or is it some combination of all of these?

Fear, arriving in layers in which genetic legacy converges with personal experience, is vital to our survival. When we freeze, stop in our tracks or take flight, it is a biological response to what we sense as near and present danger. All the same, it observes its own absurd hierarchy, in which we often harbor an abiding anxiety for the wrong things. A childhood accident causes a friend of mine to become white and shake at the sight of broken glass. But she is a chain smoker as well, and has little worry about her pack-a-day habit. And surely the recent alarm over the Ebola virus among Americans who are not fully attentive to the need for flu shots suggests a reluctance to recognize genuine threats to public health.

(More here.)

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