The human need for fear

Photo: Statue of Owl Appearing to Stare at a Pigeon.

The journal Science recently published a study of a molecule, which, if manipulated, could contribute to erasing memories associated with fearful events. I have written about some of the implicit assumptions of such researches and their potential application to the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. I am critical of these laboratory studies because they fail to consider the role of fear-based memories for relationships and community. Granted, some of these studies’ limitations have to do with the fact that they are looking at the brains of mice. Nevertheless, society and relationships are an integral aspect of the formation and functioning of the human brain and cannot be ignored.

In the hunter gatherer societies in which we evolved and lived for millions of years, fear gained meaning and is now more than just an impulse for fight, flight, or connection. One person’s fear can ignite communal reactions — and memories — that have the potential to save the tribe from similar threats in the future. In the anticipation of feared events, humans unite and often find creative solutions. Fear is also a motivation behind artful self-expression. Yet, rather than imbibed with meaning, in our isolating and rapidly-changing society, it seems fear risks becoming a pesky emotion that interferes with plans and causes meaningless — and hence useless — suffering.

We humans can be so short-sighted. Blinded by our conscious drives, we ignore at our peril our need for community and our deep longing to be fully human, which includes feeling and remembering fear.

© 2010 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).