Fear keeps us alive. Unfortunately for the human species, our fear has a way of becoming amplified, even when not based on reality. This is a side effect of our larger brains, and capacity to store information. We are especially gifted at storing trauma, as are other animals. The difference is that in humans, fear can be re-played, and distorted, as our memory changes things. Sometimes we change even the cause, of the original fear. Implanted memory shows that we can be led to believe in things that are not an original part of the threat. Humans make terrible eye witnesses for this reason.
Have you ever watched a wild life film and upon seeing antelope or zebra just casually strolling about amidst lions and hyenas, wondered why? Often photographed are scenes where crocodiles, lions, and their prey all sip from the same stream. Our human brain screams”Get out of there!” But that is because we have created indoors, and weapons, and so many other obstacles for the predators, that we forget the antelope and zebra do not have a choice about “being” some where else. Also, they could not function if they had to be in a state of perpetual panic. We can be in such a state even when watching a scary movie, but actually being ripped apart by predators is extremely unlikely in our nature disconnected world. Our flight or fight response is often triggered by less physical drama.
Our system is greatly abstract and mental. We have all the physical systems of fear, increased heart rate, and breath, sometimes sweat, and twitchy movements, but we have learned to overcome these symptoms, and glide through flight or fight with minimal effort. Most of our concerns are about “security” threats, “Did we leave the tea kettle on? Did my boss just think I insulted him? Is the car making a strange noise?” These kinds of fears come into play even when a “safe” situation means we are relatively out of immediate danger. Our active imagination, however, can create a way for fear to seep into hidden corners of our mind when we are not expecting it.
Humans are very good at imagination and constructing fear for the same reason we are not so good at always paying attention to what could be very real threats. We are better at thinking up stuff that is not real, than we are at sensing with our sight, smell, hearing, touch, and other senses. We rely more upon our neo cortex than our animal senses. This is sometimes useful and other times disastrous.
We can ignore that something is poison to us, for example, if we see it is not labeled as having contaminants, it is used in many products routinely, or if we see that everyone else is not concerned, so we do what they do. For a larger societal example, we do everything we can to prepare for a terrorist attack, especially paying attention to things like planes, where the last terrorist attack came from. The trouble is the next attack will likely come with a different intents, targets, and other means and mechanisms.
On the other hand, we are not always prepared for CERTAIN threats. Although many officials knew the specific dangers of hurricanes, and we have models of what a gulf coast hurricane will do, we chose to budget our money toward things like TSA, to keep planes safe. With earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes it is never a question of “If,” but always a question of “when,” Although we know it is coming, we will exaggerate vague threats ahead of certain ones. We will learn from the big San Francisco, or L.A. quake with hindsight, which is better than not learning at all.
Some scientists believe we have at least fifty senses, many of them about “knowing” without being certain just what the indicators are. We can sense if something is too close, although we are not consciously aware of smelling, or hearing it. We usually talk ourselves out of these fears, and downplay our animal evolved senses, sometimes at our own peril.
Politicians are masters of fear-mongering and playing up some fears even as they downplay others. To ignore the deaths caused by dirty fuel for example, they may suggest losing jobs in that industry is a much greater threat. To justify cutting science and research budgets, they may try to scare us with the greater importance of pet spending projects. Science, based on empiric senses, is our cultural heightened eyes, nose, and ears, as well as other honed senses based on reality, not imagination.
All you need to know is that over-threatening creates cynics, and under-threatening, creates apathy. Neither is sensible. When FDR said “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he was taking direct aim at our tendency to imagine threats that are easily exaggerated. We may well add, “Listen to your senses, not your mind,” If we want to measure factual things, and heed the warnings of both human and external nature, we should not ignore the denial we are capable of, and we should be alert when our other senses perk up.