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NERVOUS ILLS
THEIR CAUSE AND CURE

Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D.

1922

CHAPTER III

THE PRIMACY OF FEAR

        The fear instinct is intimately related to the innermost principle, characteristic of all life, namely the impulse of self-preservation. When, however, the fear instinct becomes deranged by being too intense, and especially when reaching the extreme stage, the instinct becomes pathological, and its functioning leads to degeneration, destruction, and death. Even in its initiatory stages the fear instinct may become abnormal, when associated with objects, situations, and sensori-motor reactions which are otherwise normal and beneficial, or actually requisite in the total economy of life activity of the particular organism. Under such conditions the fear instinct is decidedly pathological.l

         In fact we may say that the fear instinct is the main source of functional, psychopathic diseases. This also holds true of the individual in his aggregate capacity. If the impulse of self-preservation is at the basis of life, the fear instinct is its intimate companion. We may unhesitatingly assert that the fear instinct is one of the most primitive instincts of animal life. We are sometimes apt to overlook the power of fear, because our life is so well guarded by the protective agencies of civilization that we can hardly realize the full extent, depth, and overwhelming effects of the fear instinct.

         Fear is rooted deep in the nature of animal life, in the impulse of self-preservation. The fear instinct is the earliest instinct to appear in child life. Preyer observed definite manifestations of the fear instinct on the twenty-third day after birth. Perez and Darwin put its appearance somewhat later. In my observations of child life I found the manifestation of the fear instinct during the first couple of weeks. Ribot and other psychologists regard the fear instinct as "the first in chronological order of appearance."

         "The progress from brute to man," says James, "is characterized by nothing so much as the decrease in the frequency of the proper occasion for fear. In civilization in particular it has at last become possible for large numbers of people to pass from the cradle to the grave without ever having had a pang of genuine fear. Many of us need an attack of mental disease to teach us the meaning of the word. Hence the possibility of so much blindly optimistic philosophy and religion. (James refers here to the blind optimism and cheerful metaphysical mysticism handed out to the uncultured classes.) Fear is a genuine instinct, and one of the earliest shown by the human child."

         The fear of the unknown, of the unfamiliar, of the mysterious, is of the utmost consequence in the life history of children, savages, and barbaric tribes, and even in the social life of civilized nations. The fear of coming mysterious, unknown evil is a source of great anxiety to the young, or to the untrained, uncultivated minds. All taboos of primitive societies, of savages, of barbarians, and also of civilized people take their origin, according to anthropological research, in the perils and salvation or the soul, or in the fear or impending evil. As an anthropologist puts it: "Men are undoubtedly more influenced by what they fear than by what they love."

         The civilized nations or antiquity used to be terrorized by omens, by occurrences of an unfamiliar character, such as storms, thunders, lightnings, comets, meteors, meteorites, and eclipses. Affairs of states and wars were guided by superstitions or fear. Whole armies used to throw away their weapons and run panic-stricken at the appearance of meteorites, meteors, and especially of comets. Even the ancient Athenians were influenced by strange, meteorological phenomena. On the appearance of a solar eclipse Pericles saved his ship by throwing his mantle round the helmsman, telling him that that was all that an eclipse was, and that there as no reason to be scared by the veiling of the sun from us. The father of pragmatic history, the great Thucydides, in his history of the Peloponnesian wars, puts the appearance of comets among national disasters.

         The fear of the mysterious, the unknown, and the unfamiliar is a source of anxiety and distress in the young, or in the untrained and uncultured minds. Fear may become fixed and morbid when taking place in early childhood, when not inhibited by the course of further development, and, all the more so, when kept up by further events of life.

         In most people the instinct of fear is controlled, regulated by education, and inhibited by the relatively secure life led in the herd, pack, group, and society generally. The instinct of fear, however, is but dormant and requires the opportune moment such as a social, mental epidemic, a "group-panic," to become manifested in its full intensity, giving rise to a morbid state of the "group-mind," or "herd-mind."

         There are again cases when even under ordinary conditions fear becomes developed in the individual from early childhood either by lack of inhibitory training or by accidents in early child life. In all such cases the fear instinct becomes morbid, giving rise in later life to various forms of mental disease known as psychopathies, or recurrent morbid states.

         We can, therefore, realize the full significance of the principle laid down by one of the greatest thinkers of humanity, Plato, that to learn "What to fear and what not to fear" is of the utmost consequence to the individual, both in his private and social activities.

         Throughout the whole domain of the animal kingdom anything strange and unfamiliar is an occasion for the awakening of the fear instinct. The strange, the unfamiliar may be detrimental to the organism, and the animal recoils from meeting it directly. There must be exploration made before the reaction of approach can be effected. We find the same tendency in children and savages who run in terror of anything unusual.

         On the whole escape is probably the safest course, since the unfamiliar may prove of great danger. The well known saying "Familiarity breeds contempt" has its significance in that the familiar does not arouse the fear instinct, and can be approached without risk. Reactions to a familiar object or known situation run in well established, habitual grooves.

         In man the sense of familiarity may be acquired by the use of intelligence, by observations of various forms of unfamiliar situations and strange objects. Reason, leading to the understanding of the causes of things, turns the strange and unfamiliar into the familiar and the known, and thus dispels the terrors and horrors of the fear instinct.

         The function of the intellect is to conquer the world by making man at home and familiar in this "wild universe." This is the course of human progress. "The aim of knowledge," says Hegel, "is to divest the objective world of its strangeness, and to make us more at home in it." In the words of the ancient poet:

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas,
Atque metus omnes, et inexorabile fatum,
Subject pedibus, strepitumque Acherontis avari
.2

 

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1 See Chapter "Psychopathic Reflexes" in my volume "The Causation and Treatment of Psychopathic Diseases."
2. Happy is he who knows the causes of things, who can trample on fear, inexorable fate, and the horrors of death.

 

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