Is fear useful to us?

Evolution: why fear is so important to humans

Who does not still know the chants from early childhood such as: "Scared bunny, pepper nose tomorrow the Easter bunny will come and bring you rotten eggs!"? They went through your marrow and bone when your heart was already in your pants. As the last still standing on top of the high wall, you had to think about it: jump or not? Do I accept to be teased for weeks or do I take the risk of hurting myself?

In terms of evolution, one should not be ashamed of being afraid of something. It made perfect sense that our ancestors ran away from a bear that went wild, for example. Without fear, humanity would have perished long ago. The spectrum of things or events that people fear varies from person to person. Nevertheless, there are overlaps of fundamental existential fears that go back to our origins in ancient times. Fears are important as they ensure survival.


It is genetically determined that the feeling of fear arises at all. US researchers at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, found the gene stathmin, which controls innate and learned fear. In summary, the study results published by Gleb Shumyatsky's team in 2005 in the journal “Cell” showed that mice lacking this gene were veritable daredevils in the studies.


Different areas of the brain play a role in the development of fear in the body. According to current knowledge, the emotional center of the brain, the so-called amygdala, seems to be the hub in which fear develops. A stimulus that creates fear is processed in the amygdala and sets in motion a cascade, which leads to the body reactions that shape fear and the feeling of wellbeing that follows after having overcome fear, via hormone releases such as adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine.

Palpitations, rising blood pressure, shallow accelerated breathing, sweating, and constriction of the pupils are some of them. Some people actually pee their pants out of fear. The fear is usually written on your face, which can be noticeable by extreme paleness or reddening. Scared and terrified, you have wide-open eyes and involuntary jaw movements that sometimes even make your teeth chatter. One trembles like an aspen leaf, because the muscles are in increased tension in order to be able to react quickly. The tightness that is felt in the chest and the feeling that your throat is constricted can also be found in the origin of the word "fear". "Angustus" means "tight" in Latin and "angere" means "to tie up".

All of these reactions go hand in hand with the actual benefit of the anxiety state: the extreme increase in attention and performance in which the body is put. Because he has to react quickly and correctly to the impending danger in order to ensure survival. Escape or attack? Paralysis or threat? With regard to an existential threat, fear makes the body ready to perform at its best. With fear in the neck, for example, things run faster because breathing, circulation and perception are greatly changed and stimulated by the hormone release.

Sometimes fear does not give the body an energy boost, but even leads to its immobilization: one is then paralyzed with fear or even passed out. The solidification to form a pillar of salt is not the worst form of defense in relation to our ancestors. Because many predators react to movement. With insects or mice, for example, so-called paralysis occurs in some dicey situations, an involuntary dead reflex with which the enemy is tricked.

In today's civilized world, existential threats rarely show up in the form of wild animals targeting us. Instead, other fears have found their way into our lives. For example, stage fright or exam fears, which may not save our lives immediately, but in the best case lead to an increase in performance and can therefore have positive effects for us.

Healthy fear is right and important