Fear of Naming Fears

On December 2012, I was walking back from my research lab. It was around 6 PM which is not super late; unless you are living in Buffalo, NY  and there is a blizzard outside. It was about 1 mile walk but the snow was so bad that I could not see anything 2 feet in front of me; I lost count how many times I had slipped and I couldn’t feel my hands. I was so scared, I almost called 911.

As I wait to hear back from my REUs, I am scared of not getting into my top choice institute.

Are these the same feeling? NO. But, we classify both feelings as being afraid. That creates a problem for behavioral neurobiologists. What is this emotion’s operational definition?

Theoretically, it might be possible to stick electrodes into brains of monkeys and see if different kinds of fear (read lost in a blizzard vs REU) elicit same neuron activity. But how many kinds of fear are there? And can we replicate all those kinds of fear in non-humans?

Ralph Adolphs of CalTech offers an interesting view of this problem. In his paper, The biology of fear he says “In the same way that studies in physics would not reveal to us a material object category such as ‘chairs’, neurobiological studies of fear might not carve out a state of ‘fear’.” As weird as it is to compare ‘fear’ and ‘chair’ (Yes, I know they rhyme); thinking about the problem this way gives it some clarity. His suggestion is to think about fear as a functional category. For example, “when you are afraid you want to escape from that situation” can be a functional category of fear.

However, defining something may help us study it objectively but it doesn’t account for our feelings. I do feel “fear” in both of the situations at the beginning of this essay.

May be we can make this a little easier on us by recategorizing our emotional states. Let’s assume we call feeling of going to be eaten = fear1; feeling of losing our way = fear2 ; feeling of not getting in to top choice school = fear3. It might then become easier to study one of these fears at a time. We can also think this as adding to the already existing list of phobias. In today’s world of information sharing it can be done fairly easily. Participants will log into a specific site and add the most recent fear they felt.

Are you scared to read my next blog? Just log in to that site and create “S’sblogreadingphobia” as a subcategory of fear. That’s enough for today– I am off to create “fearofnamingfears”.

Note: I absolutely loved reading Ralph Adolphs paper. If you are on a computer that has access to science direct, check it out here -http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982212014352

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