Learning Fear

People can be afraid of almost anything. We can be afraid of the truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, even afraid of each other, observed Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).

Why Are We So Afraid? 

We learn fear as a child. Children learn from their falls and near-falls and become increasingly afraid of heights (Campos, Et al., 1992). This short list of naturally painful and frightening events multiplies over time into a long list of human fears: Fear of flying or driving, fear of mice or spiders, fear of the dark, fear of closed or open spaces, fear of failure or success, fear of other races, nationalities and nations.

Monkeys Scared of Snakes

Learning by observation increases the size of the list (Mineka, 1985). Nearly all monkeys raised in the wild are afraid of snakes, while monkeys that are raised in a lab are not. Lab-raised young monkeys observing the older monkeys refusing to reach for food in the presence of a snake, quickly learn, suggesting that we learn fear from both our own first-hand experience as well as by observing our family and friends. 

Built-in Safeguard

Fear may also be built-in, as a safeguard. This possibly helped our ancestors survive (Ohman-Mineka, 2003). But our stone age fears leave us unprepared for high-tech dangers, such as cars, electricity and bombs. All of which are far more dangerous (Lumsden & Wilson, 1983).

Amygdala Plays Key Role

One key to fear learning lies in the Amygdala, that Limbic System neural center deep inside the brain. The Amygdala plays a key role in associating various emotions, including fear (Barinaga, 1992). The Amygdala receives input from various parts of the brain for processing emotions. Researchers have been mapping these circuits showing why humans and animals learn fear. 


Experience helps shape such fearfulness, but so do our genes. Our genes influence our temperament and reactions. Scientists have isolated a gene that influences the Amygdala’s response to frightening situations (Hariri Et al., 2002). This gene has been researched showing that different sizes and versions of this gene produce different responses to frightening pictures in the lab.

Physical Responses

Nerves traveling out from neural tissue on either side of the brain’s center carry messages that control heart rate, sweating, the release of stress hormones, attention, and all other areas that rev up in threatening situations.

This report is not a diagnosis. We hope this information can guide you toward improving your life.

Review our Knowledge Base or the links displayed on this page for similar and related topics.