Are phobias really irrational, or does the brain have a better reason for creating them?
What makes a phobia? It’s perfectly rational to prefer not to perch dangerously on the edge of a perilous cliff, and it’s only common sense to avoid the bite of a snake. But some of us take it a step further: experiencing acute symptoms of anxiety when exposed to certain threats, even when we’re actually safe. We can be on a perfectly safe railed walkway that’s high in the air, or the snake can be behind glass, but we still get the full physiological reaction. Fight or flight kicks in; anxiety, increased metabolism. Adrenalin and dopamine. Peripheral vision turns to tunnel vision and the mind becomes clear and focused on escaping the object of your phobia.
Trauma from past events is the main cause of most phobias, but some researchers also believe heredity may play a role (the eternal nature vs. nurture debate). The nurture component triggers a conditioned response to a stimulus. Here are phifteen phreaky phobias and what we know of them:
1. Arachnophobia: Fear of Spiders
Why is it that even a tiny toddler with no previous spider experience will recoil in terror from a tiny cute little animal that can’t possibly pose any threat? Some have speculated that arachnophobia is an evolutionary adaptation; individuals who lacked the fear were spider-venomed to death more often enough that their genes eventually became expressed less often. Others have pointed out that the actual threat from spiders has never been substantial enough to produce such an effect.
Whatever the cause, arachnophobia is somewhat infamous as the poster child for exposure therapy, the most successful way to treat phobias through desensitization. What arachnophobe would not want to someday be thickly encrusted with Giant Huntsman spiders?
2. Pediophobia: Fear of Dolls
A theory to explain why this phobia exists has to do with the “uncanny valley” — that gap between our comfort with the images of real people, and our comfort with fictional characters sufficiently different from humans. In between, where things like corpses, prosthetic hands, wax figures, and lifelike animated humans are, they’re almost-but-not-quite human and it creeps us out. A picture or drawing of a doll may seem harmless enough, but when a real doll is there in front of you in three dimensions and with physical synthetic eyes and hair and clothes, its evident realism drops it squarely into the uncanny valley. The uncanny valley is probably also largely responsible for:
3. Coulrophobia: Fear of Clowns
In addition to their uncanniness — appearing essentially as malformed humans — clowns are correlated with behavior that is equally uncanny. Whether they’re hitting each other over the head with giant cartoon hammers or (perhaps even creepier) quietly handing you a balloon or a flower with an overly loving grin, they behave almost-but-not-quite like people: too different, and yet too similar, for comfort.
4. Emetophobia: Fear of Vomiting
Some people just don’t do vomit: really, really don’t do vomit. They can’t think about it, watch it, or even imagine doing it themselves. The leading theory is that emetophobia is a reaction to a traumatic incident as a child, where vomiting may have been especially painful, humiliating, or associated with a strong memory such as a severe illness. As is the case with all phobias, a quick drive of the porcelain bus today wouldn’t be all that bad; but the sufferer has been conditioned to be severely anxious at the very idea.
5. Ornithophobia: Fear of Birds
In many cases we can never pinpoint what event in a sufferer’s life may have triggered their fear of birds, but the effect can be quite dramatic. Birds are everywhere outside; they can fly, they can come at us unexpectedly from any angle. This uncertainty and feeling of imminent attack is sufficient to trigger a state of acute stress response, the formal term for the fight or flight response. It triggers all the metabolic and biochemical reactions, making a life with too many outdoor excursions truly too stressful for an ornithophobe to manage.