Apparently We Have More to Fear than Fear Itself

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Something I never thought much of in relation to memory and learning is phobias, and I was intrigued when our text ushered in the topic in that context.
It's true that people aren't always afraid of thing with which they've had the most frequent or traumatic unpleasant experiences. I've had a deep seated emetophobia (fear of vomiting) since I was a child, but the first time I became ill in that way was when I was seventeen and had no traumatic encounters with the act previously.

The theory of preparedness and evolutionary predisposition to phobias is a great one, and makes me think of Carl Jung (what with the collective unconscious). But what about the unexplained character of many of them (sure, clowns aren't all that funny, but are they actually dangerous enough to warrant the dread they seem to invoke in many)? There are phobias out there that seem to function on a symbolic and psychodynamic level: when a literal threat is too terrible to face, the fear is cast off into a symbol. What parts of the brain work to achieve this displacement? It's certainly a survival mechanism of sorts, but would the displacement not interfere with learning about the actual, literally perceived danger?



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Interesting take on phobias and Jungian theory. Many evolutionary psychologists would argue that the common fear of snakes is embedded in our genetic code resulting in brains that are on high alert when confronted with a snake.

Certainly there are structures in the amygdala and hippocampi that likely have predetermined pathways designed for the recognition and reaction to snakes.

At higher levels of processing, people can choose to regulate this warning system by either approaching or avoiding the stimulus (snake). Pentacostal ministers over come these fears and use them in their sermons. Others recoil just at the mention of the word snake.

Fortunately, the same learning processes that spiral these fears into phobias can be employed to reduce and even overcome most phobias.

Graduated exposure therapy or systematic desensitization can train people to discover that catastrophic things do not always occur when confronted with ever more vivid examples of the feared stimulus.

I am curious to know what you are thinking when a fear is so terrible it is "cast off into a symbol."

Will you provide an example?

I haven't read enough of Jung to know whether he would explicitly agree or disagree with evolutionary psychologists regarding fear as embedded in a genetic code, but such embedding has always been something like what I imagine Jung is talking about.

When I mention a fear being too terrible to face and consequently being cast off into a symbol, I am talking about a phobia that is the manifestation of repressed emotional problems. In this process, unconscious fears are displaced onto innocuous objects.

The fear that becomes repressed (and eventually displaced) is one that is unacceptable socially or in context of family relationships. A young man may have grown up with a horrible, dysfunctionally overbearing and manipulative mother, and upon reaching adulthood, he can tolerate his mother—and he must in order to avoid the terrible truth that his mother is emotionally destructive instead of nurturing, and because it is socially required. But he has developed a phobia of, say... spiders, because their movements are perceived as sneaky and they're often found where they shouldn't be. The spider has become symbolically infused with the horror initially evoked by the subject's mother. The spider is a symbol of his mother, onto which the unacceptable fear has been cast.

Some therapists help patients to uncover the unconscious reasons for underlying irrational fears in order to more effectively combat or nullify them; realization helps rob the literal object of the threat that symbolism had conferred upon it.
A spider may, of course, also be something we are genetically predisposed to fear. Maybe the preexisting predisposition is magnified emotionally? It would be interesting to further study.

Unfortunately, I don't know if these sorts of things can be measured or quantified objectively beyond the fact that subjective analysis in case studies seems effective for many.

Freud investigated the phenomenon, but he integrated his own theories of the Oedipal complex. (about halfway down the page)

A good illustration (I think) is linked from my original post in a powerpoint show.

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This page contains a single entry by E. Carriere published on October 23, 2011 9:37 PM.

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