The biology of fear: getting acquainted

Not just for humans

Many of us can relate stories about the fear that some of our pet dogs experience at the sound of fireworks. My 7-year old rough collie, Mimos, behaves in exactly the same way as described in the article ‘Why Fireworks Scare Some Dogs but Not Others’ (, Courtney Sexton, June 26, 2020): “Ears back. Body trembling. Hiding in the bathtub or crawling under the bed.”

In another faithful description, an eminent author cites: “I have seen a dog much terrified at a band of musicians who were playing loudly outside the house, with every muscle of his body trembling, with his heart palpitating so quickly that the beats could hardly be counted, and panting for breath with widely open mouth, in the same manner as a terrified man does.” The writer is none other than Charles Darwin, considered as the first evolutionary psychologist, and the extract is from Chapter V of his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, his third major work of evolutionary theory but also his ‘forgotten masterpiece’, in which he concentrates on the biological aspects of emotional life and adopts a biological approach to link emotions such as suffering, weeping, hatred and anger, to their origins in animal behaviour.

Failing to make the connection

And yet, while this is useful in understanding the nature and expression of fear in Mimos, it does not explain why he is terrified at the sound of fireworks and thunder, but has grown accustomed to my loud vacuum cleaner, so much so that nowadays, depending on his mood, he chooses to bark at it either aggressively or cheerfully. The truth is that, unfortunately, since Mimos cannot locate the sound, and therefore does not have a reasonable explanation for what is happening, he cannot make the association, prepare himself, and take action. In the absence of an object he can identify, to him, the sound of fireworks remains an unfamiliar peril from which he cannot escape. 

A human universal

All humans experience fears and anxieties that signal danger on certain occasions. Fears and the ability to overcome some of them are among what are known as ‘human universals’, a list of so-called surface universals observed by ethnographers and compiled in 1989 by Donald E. Brown. From an evolutionary viewpoint, the psychological mechanism that results in fear seems obvious: it is an adaptive response that causes us to deal with the source of danger, serving survival.

A vital evolutionary legacy

Fear is that nasty but normal feeling that results from true danger. It is only when the fear that we experience is way out of proportion to the danger, is beyond voluntary control, and leads to an avoidance of the feared situation, that it becomes a phobia. It was South African psychiatrist Isaac Marks who, in his 1987 book ‘Fears, Phobias, and Rituals: Panic, Anxiety, and Their Disorders’, expressed the evolutionary function of fear in a most revealing manner: “Fear is a vital evolutionary legacy that leads an organism to avoid threat, and has obvious survival value.”

The gift of fear

A more recent work, the nonfiction self-help book and New York Times bestseller, Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence (1997), urges readers to listen to their intuitive fears and to trust their gut to recognise signs of danger and avoid harm. Gavin de Becker, a security specialist serving governments, public corporations and famous personalities including Jeff Bezos, describes what he sells as ‘peace of mind’.

Turning to evolutionary psychology

If fear is a gift, we should be curious to know how to make sense of the struggle we feel and to allow ourselves the openness to experience the benefits it brings. If fear is an evolutionary legacy, we can turn to evolutionary psychology to learn how the evolved biological responses that shape the nature of our fears are designed for our fitness. The evolutionary psychological basis of fear guides us through an understanding of how the different behavioural responses – freezing, fleeing, fighting, submission or appeasement, fright, and fainting – protect us from danger; allows us to comprehend the biological function of the evolved physiological reactions (the increase in heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, loss of appetite, etc.); provides a link between the most common subtypes of fears and the adaptive problem that they were meant to solve (e.g. our fear of disease is related to the problem of contamination and avoidance of pathogens); and sheds lights on the knowledge that, in humans, for example, specific fears seem to emerge precisely when they are needed, and that there are marked differences in the way males and females experience some types of fears.

Changing the perspective. For advantage.

Evolutionary reasoning can inform us with valuable insights so that rather than struggle to eliminate our fears, we can focus instead on harnessing the strength of the strategies they provide. We can then begin to appreciate the power of fear, and start to perceive it as a positively normal and absolutely well-intentioned companion, affording us protection to survive the great struggles of life and helping us navigate through the harsh conditions of our environment.

This article was first published on Times of Malta.

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