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Humans are programmed to experience fear, because fear is a useful response to noxious stimuli. Yet, there are those fears that are more irrational that others.
I suffer from ligyrophobia. Ligyrophobia is defined as the irrational fear of loud noises. Balloons popping, fireworks, thunder, explosions, dogs barking, and (even at one time) vacuum cleaners used to scare me beyond words. Of course, now it’s greatly improved for the most part. It may seem silly, being scared of loud noises, and it is. I’ll be the first to admit it. My mother blames it on the fact that she went into labor when a car backfired right next to her. I’m not too sure about that, but there is something to be said for traumatic events setting one up for a lifetime of phobias.
The suffix “phobia” itself derives from the Greek, meaning “fear.” A host of prefixes can be attached that denote the specific fear. Agoraphobia is a fear of open spaces (or conversely, leaving one’s home), agora referring to the ancient Greek, open-air marketplace. Arachnophobia is a fear of spiders. The list goes on, with some of the fears being especially off-beat. Fear of hippos. Fear of wrists. My personal favorite is fear of peanut butter getting stuck to the roof of your mouth. Arachibutyrophobia. Try saying that ten times fast.
Emotional memories, especially fears, are generally encoded in the amygdala. The amygdala (from the Latin for “almond” because of its shape) sits in the middle of the brain, and is also encircled by the hippocampus, another important memory-related structure. Yet it is interesting because fear itself is not totally dependent on memory, per se. In an experiment conducted during the turn of the 20th century, it was observed that in a Korsakoff’s patient, pricking her hand would result in her being less likely to shake the researcher’s hand, but she couldn’t pinpoint why that was the case. In Joseph LeDoux’s lab at NYU, rats who were conditioned to associate a 30 second tone with a small shock to the foot. Eventually, rats would freeze and/or display other typical fear responses to the tone alone. Some rats were given amygdalar lesions and lost the conditioned response that they had to the tone, and reacted as though there was no association at all. The response to shock, though, was unchanged.
The amygdala is hardwired to pair variables together, usually sights, smells, sounds, and certain touches to events, positive and negative. Perhaps in phobias, there is a a tendency to overextend and associate seemingly innocuous objects with a negative response. fMRI studies have confirmed the link between amygdalar activation and phobic responses in humans (in this case, with arachnophobes).
So is there a way to really cure phobias? Not really anything much more than strength of will and perhaps therapy. Some fears are easier to overcome than others. It has taken me years to get over some of mine, but will probably take many more to get over it completely. For me, ligyrophobia is something I have had for as long as I can remember. Getting rid of something so rooted in your psyche is a challenge, a challenge which I don’t mind taking. It helps a little, to know the biological underpinnings for why we fear, it makes fear less nebulous and more conquerable. It also helps to have a strong support system, friends, family, and loved ones usually make any task a lot easier.
“There is nothing to fear but fear itself,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once said. Certainly misplaced fears should be avoided, but I don’t think there we should ever attempt to fear nothing, because fear is after all a much-needed survival response. Some spiders, sharks, lightning (at least, close-range), and other things are obviously dangerous, and should be feared and avoided to a degree. I think Ellen DeGeneres summarized this and other points in one of her monologues the best, and I’ll leave you with that.