Anatomy of Fear: The Primitive

One of the pleasures of my current writing project on the history of toxic fear in the American 1980s has been the opportunity to engage with emotions history and to track the history of psychology as it pertains to fear and anxiety. Though I suspect I will cut my discussion of fear writ large from the manuscript, it was fun drafting some of this material. Here, in very rough draft form, is a brief anatomy of fear, in which I braid together three disparate identities of fear: the personal, the political, and the primitive, which I divide into three sections. I will share the subsequent iterations in future posts.

Fear is an atavistic trait, mired in primitive survival instincts. As the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård so eloquently put it: “Fear is archaic, it is embedded in the body, in its purest form untouchable to thought, and it is there to keep us alive.”[1] True. Upon the discovery of a potential threat, the body instantly generates a fight or flight mentality. Pulse quickens, hairs bristle, muscles tense. This is hardwired into our biology. It is little surprise, then, that Charles Darwin studied fear quite extensively in his less well-known (but popular at the time) work on emotions from 1872.[2] Fear, Darwin wrote in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, “may be accounted for through the principles of habit, association, and inheritance,—such as the wide opening of the mouth and eyes, with upraised eyebrows, so as to see as quickly as possible all around us, and to hear distinctly whatever sound may reach our ears.” Just as in Duchenne de Boulogne’s famous pictures a decade earlier of facial expressions that sought to capture a universal essence of specific emotions, Darwin wanted to describe the biological nature of emotion. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals followed quickly on the heels of The Descent of Man (1871), and his intent was consistent with his broader work on evolution. Emotion, he contended, must be a universal and evolutionary constant. “Men, during numberless generations, have endeavoured to escape from their enemies or danger by headlong flight, or by violently struggling with them,” Darwin surmised. “Such great exertions will have caused the heart to beat rapidly, the breathing to be hurried, the chest to heave, and the nostrils to be dilated. As these exertions have often been prolonged to the last extremity, the final result will have been utter prostration, pallor, perspiration, trembling of all the muscles, or their complete relaxation. And now, whenever the emotion of fear is strongly felt, though it may not lead to any exertion, the same results tend to reappear, through the force of inheritance and association.”[3]

So far, so good. The easy assumption is to suggest that Darwin saw fear as an evolutionary characteristic, universal in its conception. Humans were simply exhibiting animalistic survival instincts, even if those instincts didn’t necessarily apply in the same manner as they might have done in the wild. But his conclusions weren’t so tidy. Darwin followed the description above with the claim that “the above symptoms of terror … are in large part directly due to the disturbed or interrupted transmission of nerve-force from the cerebrospinal system to various parts of the body, owing to the mind being so powerfully affected. We may confidently look to this cause, independently of habit and association.”[4] Indeed, throughout his work, Darwin qualified his analysis and shied from infallible emotional absolutes. The science of emotion required interpretation, and Darwin was unapologetic about this uncertainty: “When Shakespeare speaks of envy as lean-faced, or black, or pale, and jealousy as ‘the green-eyed monster’; and when [Edmund] Spenser describes suspicion as ‘foul ill-favoured, and grim,’ they must have felt this difficulty.” In essence, Darwin resisted a universal codex for emotion, which could be situated in time and place—and misinterpreted. “We are often guided in a much greater degree than we suppose,” he warned, “by our previous knowledge of the persons or circumstances.”[5]

If there is a universal component to fear, it is in its physiology. Emotion is simply complex chemistry. In the early twentieth century, psychologists located irritation in the medulla oblongata as the source of these instinctive responses.[6] A century later, neuroscience could more accurately describe fear’s chemistry, as an oxytocin activation in the hypothalamus and release from the pituitary. (amygdala here?—appropriately buried deep within the brain’s inner sanctum). Fight or flight hormone: epinephrine.

…and so it goes. The next instalment considers fear’s political dimensions, also in incomplete form.
[2] Charles Darwin, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (London: John Murray, 1872).
[3] Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 166.
[4] Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 166-167.
[5] Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 142. Darwin’s intent has been the subject of much intellectual controversy since its publication. The anthropologist Margaret Mead and the evolutionary psychologist Paul Ekman have been the primary combatants, the former advocating a social constructivist reading of Darwin’s work and the latter championing a universalist approach For a good summary of the debate, see Jan Plamper, The History of Emotions: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 164-172.
[6] Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (XXX, 1920), Part 3 General Theory of the Neuroses XXV. Fear and Anxiety.

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