Nothing to Fear Except Fear Itself: The FEAR System

This is the third in my series on the late Dr Jaak Panksepp’s model of the neurological origins of human and animal emotions. Follow these links or earlier articles on the RAGE and SEEKING Systems.


Born Afraid

We all know the feeling of being afraid. This subjective unpleasant feeling is usually associated with the urge to avoid or escape, and with physiological changes such as sweating palms, rapid breathing and rapid heart rate. Many of my clients describe fear as a daily occurrence, even (probably especially) if they live an especially safe lifestyle.

Rats, skyscraper viewing platforms, horror movies; these are common modern targets of fear. Most of us have never experienced a harmful experience involving these stimuli. Largely, our rational minds are aware that they are not dangerous. Yet we feel scared all the same.

How is it that we come to feel this unpleasant feeling of fear, even and especially when we are safe?

One major theory of fear if is that fear itself is just a learnt association with pain. Fear is the anticipation of pain. And indeed, pain does trigger a pain response in most people and animals. So much of the foundational research in psychology is based on this learnt fear response. The basic building blocks of behaviourism were established via many experiments involving scared, zapped rats.

But pain is not always needed for fear. Many animals show fear behaviours from an early age, despite never being exposed to pain. Young rats demonstrate fear behaviours when exposed to the smell of cats, even when they have never encountered a cat in their lives.

These “intrinsic” fears occur in humans as well. The fear of the dark and of separation occur in us regardless of our early experiences. Some of us seem to be sensitised to fears of high places and of creepy-crawlies like spiders and cockroaches.

If not from learning, how do develop such fears?

FEAR Pathway

The theory of evolution proposes that when a trait is helpful (adaptive), that trait is likely to be passed on through the generations until it becomes the norm. Fear is a strong unpleasant feeling associated with threats. Fear certainly is helpful for most species. And for our species, which evolved in the middle of the food chain, fear was vital for our success.

Fear itself, is an evolved faculty which resides in the brain. Brain boffins have located the neural pathway that elicits fear responses in humans and other animals. This brain “circuit” runs from the Amygdala to the Hypothalamus and thence to regions within the Periaqueductal Grey.

Regular readers of this blog might notice that these are the same regions involved in the RAGE System. Panksepp notes that the fear and rage have parallel paths, which may crossover: perhaps accounting for the similarities in fight and flight responses.

Like so much of Panksepp’s theory, the most compelling evidence for such a Fear system comes from brain zapping research.

When an animal is given an electrical stimulation to the FEAR circuit, they act in stereotypically fearful ways. Rats will flee, freeze or defecate when the stimulation is delivered. Animals experience this stimulation as unpleasant, they will take action to stop stimulation and will avoid returning to places that they were stimulated.

Humans report a sense of great fear or anxiety when stimulated. Often, people in these experiments will report a specific fear associated with the stimulated feeling, such as being chased or being surrounded by the ocean, as if the mind is trying to make sense of the unexpected emotion. This stimulation is not experienced as being painful.

Fear vs Anxiety

So, it is likely that both humans and animals have a Fear Itself faculty which has a few intrinsic targets, based on the evolved needs of the species. This faculty attaches itself to painful and dangerous events, which is a key component of learning about threats.

Is this all there is to the human emotion of fear? A tiny pathway in the old corners of the brain getting activated. What about anxiety?

A rat encounters a cat in the kitchen. A person encounters a bull whilst walking in the countryside.

The rat and the human are probably experiencing and therefore feeling something similar. The deep FEAR system is enacted, and they feel an urge to flee or freeze. This is fear.

But what about a person who imagines running into a bull on before departing on a walk and then opts to avoid the walk and stay at home? What about a person who feels scared the day before a test? Do animals experience this future focussed emotion? Do they get anxious?

Whether animals experience something akin to human anxiety is a harder question to answer. Dogs act as if they have a sense of foreboding before a thunderstorm. On the other hand, it is thought by most experts that non-human animals have little to no concept of the future. If a creature can’t understand the future, can it get anxious?

The FEAR System seems to me to describe something raw and core about the emotion of fear. This is something shared between humans and other animals. No doubt it feels somewhat similar in us and our close cousins. Human emotional life is much more complex due to our wider understanding of ourselves, the world and of time. This multiplies our fears far beyond what the FEAR system originally evolved to handle.

One thought on “Nothing to Fear Except Fear Itself: The FEAR System”

  1. Vanessa says:

    Similar to the rat study you mentioned, there was a study a few years ago where they exposed mice to the scent of cherry blossom before giving them an electric shock (so cruel), but even several generations later, mice reacted to the scent. If anxiety responses can be passed down generations through epigenetics, it could be hard to pinpoint the trigger for anxieties. If a human suddenly starts to have panic attacks, there could have been a trigger that they were unaware of as they didn’t experience their great great grandparents trauma. Mark Wolynn’s book on this is super interesting.

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