Fear: biological, emotional, or conceptual?

161031halloween(by Eileen Dombrowski) Spooky and scary: this is the time of year when many people seek out the thrill of being afraid. Not me! I’m inclined to run away and hide! But….I’m held by curiosity. Recent psychological research makes a distinction between sense of threat as a biological reaction and fear as a concept. How does this distinction, involving TOK emotion and language, affect the methodology of study?

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux argues that clarifying the concept leads to better research and that studies of animals should be interpreted in light of the difference between biology and human constructs:

“… advancing the science of neural threat processing requires not only looking beyond the amygdala but also differentiating between the brain’s chemical reaction to threat and our conscious experience of fear.

“When global organismic states [such as threat response] are witnessed by consciousness, we interpret them with the label fear,” says LeDoux, director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU and a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives. “Fear is a concept, not a ‘thing’ in the brain. Yet we assume we can find human fear in a rat brain, which is ridiculous.”

Instead, LeDoux says, animal studies should focus on exploring brain mechanisms that detect and respond to threat and which might work similarly in humans. Otherwise, we risk applying flawed data to drug development. “We expect too much from animal research,” LeDoux says. “When we find a drug that releases rats from freezing behavior when exposed to a threat, for example, we interpret that as a drug able to curb anxiety in humans. But rats don’t experience ‘anxiety,’ at least not that we know of. That’s a social construct.”

“Fear and the Brain” is interesting in explaining the connection between our sense of threat and the amygdala in the brain, but suggesting that fear also involves parts of the brain associated with language and memory. It comments on building more complete models of fearful response in order to interpret human responses better. In doing so, the article provides a good example for Theory of Knowledge of the importance of definition of key concepts for developing models and using them effectively to guide and share research.


“Fear and the Brain: an Introduction”, BrainFacts.org, March 26, 2015.  http://www.brainfacts.org/sensing-thinking-behaving/mood/articles/2015/fear-and-the-brain-an-introduction/?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Lab%20notes%202016&utm_term=196932&subid=19392600&CMP=ema-3242

image: Thank you creative commons, Pixabay. 

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