Ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) and arachnophobia (fear of arachnids, especially spiders) rank among the most common of human anxieties. In fact, more than a third of adults and children recoil in terror when they see a snake in the garden or a spider on the wall.
It turns out that even the pupils in the eyes of six-month-old babies dilate when seeing snakes or spiders. This response, researchers say, adds to the argument that fear of such creatures is instinctual, rather than learned.
Others suggest that it is not the fear of snakes and spiders that is innate, but the increased arousal and attention to them that is hardwired. However, they concede, it is possible that paying more attention to something might make learning to fear it easier later.
So, if fear of snakes and spiders is of evolutionary origin, will a full one-third of us ever be able to get over those dreads?
Since the above-mentioned babies were only half-a-year old and were from Sweden, a part of the world where there are few poisonous snakes or spiders, that study’s authors say the reactions—whether they represent just increased interest or actual stress—must be caused by an ancestral instinct.
Venomous snakes and spiders have been dangerous for us and for our ancestors for 40 to 60 million years of our coexistence—and, therefore, for much longer than with the animals we consider to be dangerous today. That allowed primates to evolve mechanisms to quickly detect these potential threats. Thus, the reaction induced by these animal groups have probably been embedded in our brains for an evolutionarily long time and are now feared from birth.
Accompanied by further factors, this inherited stress reaction can develop into a phobia. A strong, panicky aversion exhibited by your parents or a genetic predisposition for a hyperactive amygdala—a complex structure of cells nestled in the middle of the brain which is primarily involved in the estimating of hazards and the processing of emotions and memories associated with fear—can mean that an increased attention towards these creatures soon becomes an anxiety disorder.
Now, some new research from Europe is suggesting that the best way to overcome such fears is to become better acquainted with nature.
Today, phobias regarding snakes and spiders are more of a hindrance than a help. Many people complain that such worries interfere with their daily lives. That’s why a recent study, published in the British Ecological Society journal People and Nature, is so fascinating.
While the wild world may have caused this original proclivity in our ancestors, it also may provide the solution for those of us living today. After studying more than a thousand people in Hungary, researchers have found for the first time that people who feel more connected to nature are less likely to be affected by snake and spider fears or phobias.
To conduct the study, scientists from universities in the Czech Republic, in Hungary and in Portugal assessed participants’ connection to nature using the Nature Relatedness Scale. Surveys asked respondents to either agree or disagree with various statements covering attitudes about conservation, ease of being outdoors in the wilderness and feelings of belonging to nature. Higher scores indicated a stronger connection with nature.
To screen for snake and spider fears, the study volunteers answered questions involving avoidance behavior or fainting in reaction to snakes and spiders. Then, each person was shown images of actual snakes and spiders and asked to rate the pictures according to three scales: Are the pictures pleasant or unpleasant? Do the images make you feel calm or excited? Do you feel in control, or are you dominated by the animals in the pictures?
They found that people who scored highly in their self-perceived connection to nature—particularly a longing to be close to nature and engagement to protect it—were less likely to score highly in measures of snake and spider fears. Older age and living in less urbanized environments were also associated with a reduced dread of snakes and spiders.
Because of this association, say the researchers, a connection to nature could potentially protect against snake and spider phobias. These findings add to the growing evidence of the positive effects that come from spending time in nature and feeling connected to it, such as enhanced mood, greater environmental responsibility, improved health, a more positive attitude toward animals and reduced stress.
Notably, the link between a perceived connection to nature and snake and spider phobias leads to some more riddles. For example, while an affinity with nature may cause people to experience less fear of snakes and spiders, could it also be possible that people with lower levels of fear about snakes and spiders are consequently more interested in nature and feel that they have a stronger relationship with it?
And, what causes animal phobias to persist? Why do some people never seem to be able to leave behind their fears, even if they have a lot of experience with the things that evoke the emotions? Is this due to the natures of the animal stimuli or, perhaps, to individual human differences?
I think there are even more intriguing questions: does a strong connection with nature lower one’s chances of developing other animal phobias? Could we stop any such lifelong terrors from developing in our children if we expose them to nature and outdoor adventures at an early age?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,