Friday, January 31, 2014

The Origin of Fear: Darkness

As a horror writer, what makes us tick is at the very core of what fascinates me. I constantly read and think about where our fears come from and why. So thinking of a new theme for this week's post, I came up with the idea of a new series; one dedicated to ponder on the most common fears of humanity. I got right to work, researching on the internet and my own psychology books. What I found perplexed me.

As it turns out, fears can be divided in two groups, depending on the stage in life when we develop them.

Innate fears are those ingrained in our DNA through evolution. These don't depend on our experiences to develop, they simply do. Though general consensus says there are only two innate fears, debate still rages on. I'd say there are three, but I'll go into it a little later.

Now, the rest of our fears we learn. We develop them as a consequence of our experiences. Clearly this category's list can go on for miles.


Babies are fragile little creatures without knowledge of consequences and without fear, aren't they? Mostly. In reality, the only thing babies fear from the moment of birth is loud noises. Ever tried to rock a baby to sleep while watching an action-packed flick with the volume on? Good luck with that!

The second--and most perplexing--innate fear is the fear of falling. It's important to note that fearing falling and fearing heights are two different things, though closely related. The first one is developed at the crawling stage and height isn't a factor, since crawling babies have no concept of hight. The second is more prevalent among adults and is directly proportional to the degree of separation from the floor: The farther away, the more acute the reaction is.

As an innate fear, I call this a perplexing one because younger babies are known to be fearless. Both my daughters used to throw themselves off the bed laughing, sure that daddy or mommy would be there to catch them. Then, one day, they simply stopped. And my kids are not the only ones. Study after study has come to the same conclusion: About a month or two into the crawling stage, the infant will become wary of falling.

"Because he/she fell, thus learning that falling hurts," you may say. In an uncontrolled environment like a house, there is no way of debating this observation. It'd be like the chicken-egg argument. However, being under a controlled environment like that of a psychological study, things are different. And like I said, there are hundreds of studies dedicated to the subject. The fear of falling will kick in regardless of the experiences of the infant.

Why? Well, that's the million-dollar question. No one really knows, but it is believed that as the brain matures, the secretion of fear-specific hormones is triggered. As we grow old and learn to rationalize our fear, we become in control. But it never goes away.

The third fear I'd add to the list would be the fear of darkness. Going by the same rules: Between the age of four and six, children develop a natural fear of darkness. No matter what their individual experiences are, 99% of children will show a wariness to the dark. It can be a full-on panic, or a simple desire to keep a night light on. We all went through it, then--some of us--got over it.

Fearing the dark is an evolutionary fear. Back when humans lived in caves, the dark was not to be taken lightly. Even today, in those far away places where electricity hasn't reached (camping anyone?), the dark offers real dangers. In a time when our only weapons were rocks, and giving the fact that we have poor night sight, confronting a predator was out of the question. Those who stayed away from the dark survived. Their genes passed on to the next generation. Centuries later, that knowledge is still in us. Then we grow old and realize we control the dark with the flip of a switch, and there's no wild animal outside the locked door. Besides, your boyfriend's a black belt.

So the next time a kid next to you throws a fit because he doesn't want to be left in the dark, take a deep breath and think of how proud his Cro-Magnon ancestors would be. Then repeat: Prison-orange is not my color. Prison-orange is not my color. Prison-orange is not my color.


Julie Luek said...

Fear is an amazing motivator isn't it? I almost do anything to avoid fear. Even if it's not a real fear. This was really interesting to read!

Georgina Morales said...

Thanks Julie! I do think fear is a strong motivator, if not the strongest. Then again, it's also truly useful! =)

Lexa Cain said...

Great post! Fears are fascinating. Perhaps infants become fearful at 2 months because their eyesight and depth perception improves. And it's weird that almost all kids fear the dark or certain places in the house, like the basement, attic, or bedroom closet. I'm looking forward to reading more!

Nicole said...

Fear can carry a lot of power, but it's really funny sometimes that we fear things without fully knowing why.

Georgina Morales said...

@Lexa, good point! Who knows, really, but fear is certainly a subject with lots to talk about!

@Nicole, I think that is the most interesting part. We are so complicated that not even us can know what things influence our psyche.