Ento-musings from the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology

Monday, January 31, 2011

How to Become Afraid

Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

When I was a kid, I was frightened of insects and spiders. Especially spiders. Once, when I was about ten, I was riding in a truck with my grandfather when I noticed that a bright green spider was crawling on my arm. Freak out! I literally began to squeal. High-pitched, cyclic, little-baby squealing. My grandfather was very irritated, but to his credit (and unlike me), he kept his cool. He simply flicked it off of my arm and said "relax kid, it's just a spider." Explicative deleted.

It's no secret that lots of people are scared of spiders. Snakes, too. But where does the fear come from? Is it genetic? Perhaps our ancestors survived because they were afraid of these creatures--some of which really are dangerous--and they passed the fear on down the line. Or, maybe the fear is learned. After all, not all of us are afraid of spiders and snakes.

A new scientific study suggests that fear is learned, rather than inherited. In the study, babies spent more time paying attention to images of ANYTHING (be it snake, spider, or elephant) if a "fearful voice" was playing at the same time. This suggests that people are not born scared, but that they are quickly able to learn (from adults, for instance) which things are dangerous in their environment.

Here is a summery of the study from U.S. News: http://www.usnews.com/science/articles/2011/01/26/people-arent-born-afraid-of-spiders-and-snakes-fear-is-quickly-learned-during-infancy

So, if fear is learned... can it be unlearned?

I was once terrified of insects and spiders. But I'm not anymore. So what happened? Did I forget to be afraid? No. In fact, fear is what propelled me into this career. I didn't unlearn anything. Instead, I learned. And learned and learned. One of the things that I learned: what is dangerous in the insect/spider world, and what is not.

As it turns out, the vast majority of insects and spiders are harmless. And the ones that are potentially dangerous (at least in our part of the world), are pretty easy to recognize, even for non-entomologists: bees, wasps, hornets, black widow spiders, mosquitoes, ticks... and that's about it. Just a handful of species--out of more than 1 million species of insects and spiders in the world, and ten-thousand in Kentucky alone--are capable of sending a person to the hospital, and most of those are easily avoided.

This is not to say that insects can't be dangerous. Stinging bees/wasps and disease-carrying mosquitoes and ticks kill millions of people per year. But most people aren't scared of those. Not in that "get it away from me!" kind of way. When I was a kid, the last thing I was scared of was a tick or a mosquito. And even though I knew that bees could sting, I wasn't really scared of them. Not in the way that I was scared of that little green spider. Or, for no reason that I can explain, mayfly nymphs.

These days, I know that the little green spider was probably the Magnolia Green Jumper (Lyssomanes viridis). I know that it's harmless because all spiders in Kentucky other than the black widow and the brown recluse are harmless.

Once of the things that struck me when I was reading about that psychological study: it said that the babies paid more attention to the "fearful" things. This meant that they found the scary things interesting. I think this is why I became an entomologist. Instead of avoiding my fear, I followed it. I tracked it. With a bright flashlight. As my knowledge grew, the light got even brighter. Eventually, I chased my fear into a corner. It's still there, but it's small and weak. So I didn't lose it. And I didn't unlearn it. But the thing is, I was afraid of just two things: insects and spiders. But now there over 1 million things (and ten-thousand in Kentucky!) that I'm not afraid of.

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