Experimental psychology is obsessed with fear. In purely scientific terms, rightly so: it’s easy to create under controlled conditions, which many other important feelings and emotions aren’t. Although they’re improving quickly, neuroscience’s tools of measurement are still almost unbearably crude. We need to restrict ourselves to what we have reasonable access to for the time being.
My subjective opinion of fear is that it isn’t one of the true core feelings or emotions – at least not in human beings. In lizards or smaller mammals, perhaps, but not people. Human metacognitions around fear contain deeper layers that directly influence our conscious experience of it.
Here’s what I mean. Most of us would agree that a phobia, properly understood, contains at least three crude elements. There’s the thing itself – snakes, spiders, heights, needles, rats, mice, public speaking – that inspires those astonishingly strong emotions in the sufferer, amongst which are shades of fear. There’s the sufferer’s intellectual opinion about whether or not the thing itself is really as threatening as it feels (usually, they’ll not think whatever it is threatening – but they’ll avoid it all they can, of course). Then there’s the sufferer’s opinion of themselves on account of having that emotional reaction to something they “know” isn’t so dangerous (usually, they’ll feel contempt towards themselves on the issue, guilty, ashamed, secretive about it).
Just as an aside, I think this is where some contemporary research on phobia goes wrong. It isn’t really about having a bad experience and learning how to avoid that in future. If your window was blown in during a gale, narrowly missing you as you came into the room, you may feel uneasy beside windows in strong winds and keep a safe distance. That uneasiness does not have the violent, irrational, uncontrollable traits of phobia. You’ll act on it, but it won’t spoil your life. Nor does it spread and deepen. It’s more likely to fade somewhat, once you’ve learned what you need from it. Phobia isn’t like that. I have had people consult me for phobias of mice, say, that were beginning to extend mysteriously to squirrels, the feelings around the issue mounting week by week until it became unsafe to open a magazine or turn on the television in case mice, rats, squirrels should come on screen. The garden wasn’t safe, nor was London Underground. Sometimes I have had to guess the subject of the phobia, because the sufferer is afraid that even mentioning it will trigger out of control feelings in them. In almost all cases of phobias I come across, the “traumatic triggering episode” is absent. Fear – caution – can be learned, and in fact, must be learned, as how else are you going to know not to put your hand into a gas flame? But what you learn is care, caution and avoidance. Phobia as I meet it in my consulting room is on a totally different scale and has a different flavour altogether.
So, you have a feeling in response to some kind of environmental stimulus, and you have an opinion about whether that response is appropriate and socially accepted, and you have an opinion about yourself with regard to your feelings in response – would a proper person react in this way?
What if the environmental stimulus was Jeff Thomson?
Lancashire batsman David Lloyd averaged 42.46 in his 9 test matches for England, including a fine 214 against India in the second test in 1974. Lloyd was and is an enthusiastic and loyal man with a strong sense of duty. Captain of his county and capable of coaching England, Lloyd was a notably brave close fielder.
The 1974-5 Ashes tour of Australia was a disaster for England. Lloyd’s Test career was ended there, shattered by the heart-line bowling of Lillee and the rookie Thomson. Mike Denness was captain that year, and remembered Lloyd returning to the dressing room after a bad time in the middle:
Within seconds, the whole of his body was quivering. His neck and the top half of his body, in particular, were shaking. He was shell-shocked, suffering from the effects of never having to move around so quickly in all his life.
Not quite shell-shock: if you want to know what real shell-shock looks like, visit this site and search under “neuroses”. But it doesn’t take much imagination to work out what might have been going through Lloyd’s mind.
He’d gotten through something genuinely alarming and frightening. Or was it? His colleagues wouldn’t tell him. Had he done well in the circumstances, had he done badly, what was the right way to behave, the right way to think about what he’d been through? Is it OK to be scared, or is that a mark of weakness? Am I alright with everyone? Have I let my country down here? Tradition demanded that he treat it as water off a duck’s back, but there at the back of his mind was the sense that he might have been really badly hurt.
It used to be said that the lack of acknowledgement of our experiences and feelings from other people made it difficult for us to properly process them ourselves in conscious terms. Many of my clients find the simple experience of being listened to stunning, almost frightening, and they don’t trust it, expecting it all to go away in a minute as it always has done in the past. Realising, finally, that it isn’t going to go away this time, that I mean it, that it’s for real, makes it safe for people to acknowledge experiences, feelings and emotions, not so much to me, but to themselves – and they can finally process it all, see how it fits into the hitherto distorted story of their lives. The discovery of “mirror neurons” – neurons which fire, not just when we do something, but when we see someone else do that same something (think “monkey see, monkey do”) leads me to wonder, completely off the cuff, whether that lack of acknowledgement creates a genuine neurological conflict. A genuine neurological conflict that might be between the amygdala and the consequences of activity in mirror neurons, that’s experienced as a classic emotional conflict that exhibits physically, in shaking. The amygdala demands one reaction: the mirror neurons, reading the behaviour of people around us, demand a different one. But that is off the cuff, and almost unbearably crude, and almost certainly not what’s going on. I’m excited by the prospect of a better, well-grounded explanation though.