We are all afraid of something. Fear is one of the most basic and powerful primary emotions in existence, as well as one of the most adaptive. And it is this fear that allows us to avoid stimuli that can generate some kind of damage or injury, activating our systems to give a rapid response to theft or attack.
Most of our fears are drawn from experience, but … are they all? The truth is no. Therefore, Are there any innate fears? In this article we will talk about it.
Acquired fear and innate fear: basic definition
There are a large number of classifications of the various fears that exist, one of which divides them into two large groups: innate and acquired.
Acquired fears are those that have been learned throughout life, having their appearance in the experience of situations that have caused a stimulus to become aversive or frightening.
As for the type of fear that we are dealing with in this article, innate fear would be defined as the feeling of fear that is not born from experience but comes from genetic inheritance of our ancestors, and this fears something unconscious and common in the vast majority of human beings.
In addition to this difference, another was observed which may have useful implications at the treatment level: innate fears and conditioned fears are partly processed by different neural mechanisms. These differences can even be observed between different types of elements to fear (For example, predators).
An evolving mechanism
The reason for the appearance of innate fears is the simple fact that they are linked to the survival of the species, being also a product of natural selection: those who at one time were predisposed to be afraid of certain stimuli and avoided them survived further. easily and they were able to pass on their genes.
Likewise, innate fears are often identified with evolutionary fears in another sense: those that arise throughout the evolutionary development of each subject, appearing and sometimes disappearing as we mature. In this sense, it is true that most of the fears we have in childhood are innate (Although they are affected by learning), however, it should be noted that most of the fears we have throughout life are largely caused by learning or socialization.
For example, fear of death is something that arises in human beings, but is essentially the product of cultural learning. The same can be said of the fear of failure or the fear of fantastic beings. By this we mean that although they are often similar, evolutionary fears are not always innate.
An innate fear, but not immutable
The fact that there are innate fears does not mean that these cannot vary. Learning is a powerful tool that can significantly reduce the intensity of fear, and other alterations can lead to fear loss as well.
This is the case with some mice, which lose innate fear in cats when infected with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite and the loss of fear persists even after the infection has been cleared. Furthermore, brain damage and damage they can impair the ability to feel fear, especially if they affect the limbic system.
The existence of innate fears is visible in different cases which are repeated throughout the world throughout our development and without having suffered any harm. In this sense, we can see many examples, of which we select several below. Most of them appear throughout developmentAlthough some of those that appear in this period derive either from direct experience of aversive experiences, or from vicarious or cultural learning.
1. Loud noises
From the moment we are born, we can see how most babies burst into tears when they hear a loud noise. This fear is largely due to surprise or the detection of possible danger, and even in adulthood it causes startles. It usually appears at birth or in a period between the first two years of life. It is visible in the existence of innate protective reflexes against these sounds, as well as in the fact that we immediately orient ourselves towards their source.
Fear of the dark is one of the most well-known innate fears, as well as the one that can most easily analyze its evolutionary significance. Human beings as a species are predominantly diurnal, lacking great adaptations that allow us to see the potential dangers lurking. Interestingly, although innate, this fear is detected between the ages of two and six.
3. Heights and falls
Another of the most well-known innate fears is fear of falling, appearing between the age of six months and around the first year of life. It is because we have started to detect the depth. While there may be experiences of falls involved in this fear, the truth is that the organism itself has reflexes that seek to avoid, The most visible example being the so-called Moro reflex.
Another fear that we might take as innate is the fear of strangers, which usually also appears around the third trimester of life. This fear is not caused by the presence of an aversive experience that generates its occurrence, although education can influence it. Many babies, for example, they start to cry or stop smiling to see someone unknown.
5. Separation and loneliness
No one teaches us to be afraid of being alone, nor does it have a bad effect on the body that can scare us. However, many children are afraid to separate from their parents. A fear that usually appears between the ages of two and six.
6. Fear of storms
This fear is usually quite common in childhood, and many adults are still afraid. In this case, we are probably faced with a fear derived from the set of light and sound of lightning and thunder. It is also something of heredity, because throughout our evolution, we have had to take refuge from storms given their danger.
7. Fear of some animals
The fear of beings like spiders and snakes has an evolutionary significance that causes many people to avoid them. It is also observed that in many children there is a certain fear of small animals during childhood. It has also been observed that when exposed to the image of a possible predator, many animal species react with fear and tend to avoid it although they have not had previous experiences with this. animal.
However, in humans there is debate as to whether this fear can not really be a conditioned fear: it has been observed, on the other hand, that, if we place a baby near animals considered dangerous like snakes, are likely to arouse more curiosity than fear. In this sense, the fear could be due to some extent to cultural learning.
Although not so much in humans as in other animal species, certain smells can also generate a high level of fear. This is the case, for example, with mice when they smell the urine of a cat or other beings when they perceive the smells of their natural predators.
- Silva, BA, Gross, CT and Gräff, J. (2016). The neural circuits of innate fear: detection, integration, action and memorization. Learning and Memory, 23 (10): 544-555.