Fear & more fear: The science of scary things

Oct 1, 13 • 5enses, Guide5,418 Comments
Portrait-Photo-Emotion-Fear copy

“Fear” plate from “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” 1872, by Charles Darwin. VintagePrintable.Com, public domain.

Upon taking the presidential oath of office on March 4, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech that included an oft-quoted aphorism:
“The only thing we have to fear is … fear itself.”

And, indeed, fear is worth fearing. No, not that “unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat in advance” — that’s pretty much just fear of failure. We’re talking about that incisive, inexorable feeling of dread, horror, and doom that puts sweat stains in your shirt and brown streaks in your drawers. We’re talking about the kind of fear that inspires italics. We’re also talking about the kind of fear that, in a pinch, just might save your life.

If you want to know what to expect when you’re expecting … fear, fear not. Science has you covered.

The information in this guide was extracted and clarified from medical and scientific studies. It’s been simplified to inform and entertain, which means (hopefully not-so-important) details have been omitted. As such, don’t take this overview as gospel. If there isn’t enough information to slake your thirst for knowledge here, by all means, pick up a book.

You experience the world through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Why not use those five senses to tame and train the awful, awe-inspiring emotion of fear.



Acute fear often evokes the so-called “fight-or-flight” reaction which, among other things, causes pupils to dilate. This affords better night vision, but can also result in hyper focus à la tunnel vision. Fear can also skew spatial perception thus making threatening objects appear closer than they actually are. This conclusion, extrapolated from Emory University research published in the Oct. 9, 2012 issue of Current Biology, is more surprising than you might think. Numerous studies have shown that humans have a well-developed, remarkably accurate sense of space and time when it comes to what direction an object is headed and, when applicable, when it’ll make contact with them. The more fearful someone is of a moving object, the more likely they are to underestimate its time to collision. A technical note: Researchers have yet to determine whether fear makes threats appear to move faster or whether fear expands a person’s sense of personal space unto similar effects.



Through conditioning, practically any sound can invoke a fear response. Depending on the stimuli, though, that fear response may actually increase your hearing acuity. The relevant study, from University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers, published in June 2013 in Nature Neuroscience, shows as much for those unsung heroes of scientific research, vermin. Mice taught to fear a wide range of tones have a general fear response to a range of tones while those taught to fear a tighter, limited range of tones showed acute pitch discrimination. Essentially, they learned to distinguish sounds they previously couldn’t tell apart. It’ll take some ingenuity to put this information to use — the increased acuity was, as far as we know, limited to proximal tones — but it does show the potential for growth.



Fear, though unpleasant, is protective response meant to keep you out of harm’s way. Strong as it is, fear can be superseded by outside forces, however. Sometimes those outside forces come from within, as is the case of Toxoplasma gondii. Quite famously, mice infected with this parasite lose their innate aversion to cat urine — in fact, its replaced with a form of lust that draws the mice into the maws of Toxoplasma g.’s favorite host, cats. The change appears permanent and persists after the near-total elimination of the parasite as observed by University of California, Berkeley researchers in the Sept. 18, 2013 issue of PLoS ONE. Its affect on humans? Subtle, although measurable. It’s thought to make women more outgoing and men more reclusive. This is an emergent area of research, though, and nothing’s for certain.



Fear can have polar opposite effects on your sense of touch. On the one hand, it can trigger adrenaline that gives you more strength than you’ve ever known while blunting your sense of pain. On the other hand it can freeze you in place preventing you from moving a muscle. This latter effect, called tonic immobility, is a daily occurrence for some animals (like, say possums), but it remains a deeply coded defense mechanism for humans, too. Moreover, it appears more common if you’ve got Post Traumatic Stress Disorder according to research from Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro published in the September 2011 issue of Biological Psychology. That means the reexperiencing of past trauma can, in and of itself, trigger a bout of tonic immobility. It’s unlikely playing dead will exorcise your demons, though.



If you’re hyped up on fear and adrenaline, it might be tempting to throw back a drink or two to take the edge off. But, truth be told, alcohol doesn’t dampen fear-related body responses. Anxiety and fear appear to have distinct, separable neurological processes according to research from University of Wisconsin researchers published in the May 2009 issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Alcohol affects the former but not the latter. You can replicate this experiment at home by administering a series of randomized and scheduled shocks to a friend or loved one. Don’t be surprised, though, if your friend or loved one starts behaving erratically, or, worse yet, only shows up with a drink in hand, like that scoundrel Harry in “The Last Time I Committed Suicide.”

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