The other Saturday night we watched Lost Land of the Volcano on BBC which showed Steve Backshall, Gordon Buchanan, a giant rat (as big as a cat) and a cuscus (a tree climbing marsupial)l in a crater of an extinct volcano in New Guinea.
The cuscus was first ever seen on camera by Buchanan and then ‘caught’ by some of the indigenous people who were acting as guides. ‘Caught’ seemed to be the wrong word as it looked rathermore like it was ‘picked up’ or ‘cuddled’. The creature was wrapped in what looked like a towel and brought to camp where Backshall and the cameras were. When passed to Backshall, it acted for all the world as if he was Backshall’s pet. The cuscus, snuggled and climbed over Backshall, cuddled up and gazed at the camera and the crew without the slightest sign of distress of fear.
The giant rat, although initially sounding more unappealing, was equally fearless and almost as cute, to the point that, having been spotted on infra-red cameras, the crew were able to stroke the rat, as Buchanan said, ‘like a puppy’. It carried on eating whilst being stroked and petted, looking not the slightest bit alarmed.
Which got me thinking. The explanation for the animals’ behaviour given on the programme was that they probably hadn’t seen humans before, or if they had, had not reason to fear them.
- Make a list of all the things you are scared of
Which led me to conclude that fear really is learned and not innate. By which I mean that although we all have the potential to feel fear, that potential is only realized when we are faced with a threat, and it seemed that these creatures had no fear of humans and clearly did not perceive them as a threat.
So in the absence of fear what were the animals left with? Trust? Love? Or is that anthropomorphizing too much. They didn’t seem threatened, nor did they present a threat. Both animals had sharp teeth and claws and yet neither used them or even showed signs of using them. Their hair didn’t stand up on their neck and they didn’t try to escape.
In 1920 Watson carried out a horribly unethical experiment to show that we can be conditioned to be fearful. In his Little Albert Experiment Watson has a 9 month old child and shows the child a variety of fluffy animals and objects; a monkey, cat, dog, rabbit, rat and teddy. The child responds with interest and curiosity much as the cuscus and the rat do with the film crew. In the video link above you can see how the baby just watches and touches without signs of distress even when the animals are plonked on him.
Watson then induces fear by making a loud noise behind Albert at the same time as a fluffy thing is shown. Albert is startled by the loud noise and can’t see the source of it as it happens behind him. Because he can’t see or understand what is making the noise, he starts to associate it with the fluffy things. Because the loud noise scares him and the loud noise comes at the same time as the fluffy thing, he associates the fluffy thing with fear and so becomes scared of the animals and the teddy. He has learned fear where there was none.
- Now look at your list and ask yourself if or how you learned any of these fears?
Some psychologists believe this is how phobias may start. The first time we see a spider we are fearless. Classical conditioning (which is what Watson was experimenting with) argues that we learn to be scared of spider because, for example, we see another person scream or squirm when there is a spider around and we are alarmed by the person’s distress and so associate that feeling of alarm with the spider, by association.
Seligman argued that some phobias might be an inherited evolutionary response; ie that because our neanderthal ancestors might have done well to be scared of spider and snakes which really could have killed them, we have inherited their fear, even though we know that indigenous UK spiders can’t kill us. If it is inherited, I would argue it is a learned response rather than a genetic response. When I ask my psychology students who is scared of spiders, 90% of those who are also have a family member who is and have memories of seeing that person scared of spiders.
Clearly the potential to feel fear when faced with a threat is a survival mechanism to keep us away from things, people and situations which can harm us, whether it is learned of genetic, rational or instinctual.
However, back to the cuscus and the giant rat which had no fear of humans. It seemed most likely that they had not learned to be fearful.
- Are there things you used to be scared of, but now you’re not scared of?
- What changed?
What would life be like if we had never learned to be fearful?
P’s response was that we would all get killed as we wouldn’t know how to defend ourselves or what to defend ourself from. He argued that this lack of fear in the cuscus and the rat was what led to them being ‘caught’ and although these humans seemed to be nice, others might not be and so their trust and fearlessness would make them easy pickings.
- Have you had times when your fears have served you well? Alerted you to danger? Saved you from tricky situations?
- Have you had times when you ignored your fear and did it anyway?
- What happened?
I can see that animals which are hunted and eaten by other animals and humans need to be fearful in order to fight or fly to survive. Fear can make us freeze, flock (all act as one big herd) or fight all of which are survival responses.
What about humans? We are usually the predators and not the prey. So what function does fear play for humans?
I don’t believe we are born fearful, just with the capacity to feel fear if it is triggered.
Eldest son wasn’t scared of fire until he picked a burning log off the fire age 4 and froze. He wasn’t scared of dogs until one chased him across the road whilst the adult who was meant to be taking care of him carried on chatting.
Neither of my sons are scared of water as we’ve been going swimming since they were tiny and they have both learned to swim. They are not scared of spiders, although they might have been as I am not keen on them, but we all went to see the ‘animal man’ at a kids’ birthday party, and he was passing round the tarantula. Lots of the parents had disappeared inside at this point to avoid touching the cockroaches, snakes and spiders. I toughed it out and even held the tarantula as I was determined not to pass on my dislike of spiders, and in so doing, have grown in confidence with them.
Would it be better if my kids were scared of water, so they don’t drown, or heights, so they don’t fall, or people, so they don’t get manipulated, bullied or hurt by them? Many of us live from fear on the grounds that if we are always ready for attack, we are better prepared.
It exhausting to live like this or be with people who are behaving in that way; always suspicious, critical, defensive and ready to attack. It might mean that they are more prepared for the worst, but I would argue that they are so busy focusing on what could go wrong, that they miss what is going right.
- Which of your fears have been helpful survival mechanisms?
- Which of your fears have held you back and been unhelpful in your life?
- Which fears do you want to keep?
- Which do you want to give up?
I’m going to be Polyanna here for a moment. Imagine a child who never learned to fear. They would learn to respect fire, water, animals, people and heights, but not fear them. They would have no need to fly, fight or freeze. Therefore they would not need to attack or defend.
What conditions would these children need to grow up in in order to be fearless?
They would need to be surrounded by people who were respectful, not fearful. These people could teach them about how to light a fire safely, how to cross the road safely, how to discuss territory and ownership and opinion with another human being with respect and not fear.
Imagine how different the world would be if this were possible.
Would a world without fear be desirable?
For me, yes. I honestly don’t think there would be wars, aggression, or suffering without fear. We would still feel pain, sadness and we would face death..but without the fear. My first labour was lengthy and painful and I’m sure that it was because I was terrified and tense. My second labour was none the less painful, I just wasn’t scared and so it was completely different. Fear makes us tense up and contract, it slows our ability to think, it makes us reactive.
Is it possible to have raise a child without fear?
I have failed my children already. I have scared them when I’ve shouted at them. I have unwittingly allowed them to meet people and situations which have scared them.
I have not failed my children because they are not scared of most people, they are open to being in new places with new customs, food and people. They do not judge other people because of how they look, or what they think. They do also know that they don’t have to spend time with people or in situations that make them feel bad; they can step away.
- Have you passed on any of your fears?
- Did you want to?
- What can you change?
So what is the answer?
Let’s go back to the start. Fear is an innate propensity which I believe is dormant until it is triggered or learned. If this is so, then the less fearful I can be, the less I am modelling fear to my kids. The less fearful I feel, the less defensive, critical and reactive I will be.
For me the opposite of fearful is not ‘brave’ as ‘brave’ has connotations of warriors, strength, heroism and battle.
The cuscus and the giant rat were the opposite to fear: awareness, connection, trust, appreciation and finally love.
- Awareness first to assess whether harm is intended or not. The rat and the cuscus didn’t sense harm; they were alert, watching and listening and aware.
- Connection seemed to come next; sniffing, looking and touching, by the humans and the animals alike. Finding out about each other viscerally and behaviorally.
- Once a safe connection has been made, trust seemed to follow. Backshall let the cuscus climb all over him and the cuscus let itself be stroked and hugged.
- When awareness, connection and trust were established Backshall and the crew were able to appreciate the animals, to really see them in all their detail. To see them as separate, unique and perfect.
- And when this seeing has happened, then love is possible. The kids and I fell a little bit in love with the cuscus. Not romantic valentine love, but a love for the cuscus just being a cuscus and being remarkable.
So maybe this is the way forward, a way out of fear.
- Have you ever had an experience where you have overcome fear in this way?
Let me know.