Having spent hundreds or perhaps thousands of hours introspecting on the supposed mechanics of and causes of my own experiences of anxiety and fear, along with an arguably equal amount entertaining the parallel processes of people I speak to in person, on the phone, professionally or in passing, I’ve come to a conclusion: Human fear emerges from language.
To clarify – I’m calling it human fear to contrast it to all other fear. I do so because I don’t know of another animal yet possessing the innate language structure humans do – nor the propensity to fall victim to it.
Humans are enigmatic – their most advanced and ephemeral ideas on religion and self sit adjacent biologically to the reptilian brain; our evolutionary souvenir.
I think the assumption has always been that fear had generally arisen from this “reptilian” brain; hadn’t you? After all – the word itself elicits fear and the sentence even acts to demonstrate this idea.
Language itself (in the most basic sense), is the source of anxiety/fear. Whether our “membranes” gave birth to language or vice versa, I don’t know.
Fear and anxiety is warranted and we’ve been hardwired to experience it to stay alive. We wouldn’t live long if our fear of a busy intersection or an angry, fang bearing, adrenaline pumped mother bear was inconsequential to us.
We share this fear with other animals – we’re no different to them. The moment our perception of a realistic threat moves through the pathways of our perception through to our cognitive center and back to the amygdala, we (along with animals) release specific neurotransmitters and hormones to preserve life and limb.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of modern human beings have a cerebral notion of fear based more substantially on conditioned ideas about what is “threatening” or “dangerous” than what they’re actually experiencing (first hand). In fact, this confused propensity toward anxiety is so persistent that human beings will (mostly unconsciously) insist upon fearing an object they are directly experiencing even when said object has proven itself beyond all reasonable doubt to be a non-threat.
This is good and this is bad. This is what makes us human, and this is why we writhe and whittle away vast portions of our existence projecting ourselves into internalized, metaphysical realms of introspection where we can successfully bathe in an unending stream of fear-memes.
As far as I know I’ve just coined this term “fear-meme”, and so it warrants clarification. A fear-meme is simply a free-floating (non physical) entity that persists within an individuals abstract consciousness – persecuting and horrifying them at seemingly random intervals.
If you’re familiar with CBT (cognitive behavior therapy), you know what an automatic thought is. It’s simply the first (and mostly unconscious) impression you make of a thought/word/event … physical or not. If I say the word “elephant” to you, you won’t have much choice regarding what your automatic reaction to it is. This principle is similar to our inability to look directly at an object (say a triangle), and, without time to think, produce the word “triangle” in our consciousness. It works inversely as well – if I were to show you a printed card with the word TRIANGLE on it, you’ll see a triangle.
Acknowledging the fact that we have minimal control over our unconscious initial reactions to words, images or stimuli is critical and central to every system of cognitive (mindfulness) therapy. In fact, it’s the central idea behind almost all forms of meditation. Meditation is the practice of becoming increasingly well versed in our awareness of unconscious reactions. With this awareness comes the empowering choice of whether or not to engage a given reaction. To practice meditation is to practice recognizing and releasing automatic thoughts.
Where does language fit into this, though?
Language allows fear to multiply exponentially. Animals don’t “fear” inappropriately, they fear accurately and they don’t ruminate. Whereas an animal might learn to fear a human being who has attacked it, he won’t carry that fear outside the actual realm of that human being. Humans are capable of taking a singular experience (even one they never experienced first hand – remember learning about HELL in Sunday school?) and channeling it into nearly limitless branches of meta-fear (fear based not on an actual threat, but on the words used to describe said threat).
Humanity’s capacity for outdoing itself in regard to neurotic meta-fear is matched by the speed and prolificness of its digital past times. Whereas we had a tiny network of potential ways to learn to “fear” a thing 100 years ago, we’re now bombarded with primary, secondary, tertiary and even farther flung fear-memes all the time. Fear has become so abstract and intangible in this process that it is ferociously resistant to all forms of diffusion.
For now, though, it would suffice to stop for a “semantic pause” (as many times a day as you need do) and reflect on the concept that was discussed here. Look at the words you’ve used; even inane, banal ones.
The next time your mood changes, your ire rises or you become uncentered – ask yourself: What did my brain just tell me?