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NERVOUS ILLS
THEIR CAUSE AND CURE

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

1922

 

CHAPTER V

THE POWER OF FEAR

        The function of fear is quite clear. Fear is the guardian instinct of life. The intensity of the struggle for existence and the preservation of life of the animal are expressed in the instinct of fear. The fear instinct in its mild form, when connected with what is strange and unfamiliar, or with what is really dangerous to the animal, is of the utmost consequence to the life existence of the animal. What is strange and unfamiliar may be a menace to life, and it is a protection, if under such conditions the fear instinct is aroused.

         Again, it is of the utmost importance in weak animals, such as hares or rabbits, to have the fear instinct easily aroused by the slightest, strange stimulus: the animal is defenseless, and its refuge, its safety, is in running. The unfamiliar stimulus may be a signal of danger, and it is safer to get away from it; the animal cannot take chances.

         On the other hand, animals that are too timid, so that even the familiar becomes too suspicious, cannot get their food, and cannot leave a progeny,―they become eliminated by the process of natural selection. There is a certain amount of trust that nature demands even of its most defenseless and timid children.

        Animals in whom the fear instinct can be aroused to a high degree become paralyzed and perish. Under such conditions the fear instinct not only ceases to be of protective value, but is the very one that brings about the destruction of the animal possessed by it. Intense fear paralyzes the animal.

         "One of the most terrible effects of fear," says Mosso, "is the paralysis which allows neither of escape nor defense. Not all the phenomena of fear can be explained on the theory of natural selection. In their extreme degree they are morbid phenomena, indicating imperfection of the organism. One might almost say that nature had not been able to find a substance for brain and spinal cord which should be extremely sensitive, and yet should never, under the influence of exceptional or unusual stimuli, exceed in its reactions those physiological limits which are best adapted tq the preservation of the animal." Mosso quotes Haller to the effect that "phenomena of fear common to animals are not aimed at the preservation of the timid, but at their destruction."

         The fear instinct is no doubt one of the most fundamental and one of the most vital of animal instincts, but when it rises to an extreme degree, or when associated with familiar instead of strange and unfamiliar objects, then we may agree with Haller that the phenomena are not aimed at the preservation of the animal, but at its destruction; or, as Darwin puts it, are of "disservice to the animal." This is just what is found in the case of psychopathic or neurotic affections. The fear instinct, when aroused and cultivated in early childhood, becomes associated in later life with particular events, objects, and special states.

         When the instinct of fear is aroused in connection with some future impending misfortune, the feeling of apprehension with all its physiological changes, muscular, respiratory, cardiac, epigastric, and intestinal, goes to form that complex feeling of anxiety so highly characteristic of the acute varieties of psychopathic maladies. When fear reaches its acme, the heart is specially affected; circulatory and respiratory changes become prominent, giving rise to that form of oppression which weighs like an incubus on the patient,―the feeling known as "precordial anxiety."

        The fear instinct is the ultimate cause of functional psychosis,―it is the soil on which grow luxuriantly the infinite varieties of psychopathic disturbances. The body, sense, intellect, and will are all profoundly affected by the irresistible sweep of the fear instinct, as manifested in the overwhelming feeling of anxiety. The fear instinct and its offsprings―hesitation, anxiety, conflicts and repressions―weaken dissociate, and paralyze the functions of the body and mind, producing the various symptoms of psychopathic diseases. The fear instinct keeps on gnawing at the very vitals of the psychopathic patient.

        Even at his best the psychopathic patient is not free from the workings of the fear instinct, from the feeling of anxiety which, as the patients themselves put it, "hangs like a cloud on the margin or fringe of consciousness." From time to time he can hear the distant, threatening rumbling of the fear instinct. Even when the latter is apparently stilled, the pangs of anxiety torment the patient like a dull toothache.

        Montaigne, writing of fear, says, "I am not so good a naturalist (as they call it) as to discern by what secret springs fear has its motion in us; but be this as it may, it is a strange passion, and such a one as the physicians say there is no other whatever that sooner dethrones our judgment from its proper seat; which is so true, that I myself have seen very many become frantic through fear; and even in those of the best settled temper, it is most I certain that it begets a terrible confusion during the fit. Even among soldiers, a sort of men over whom, of all others, it ought to have the least power, how often has it converted flocks of sheep into armed squadrons, reeds and bull rushes into pikes and lances, and friends into enemies.

        "The thing in the world I am most afraid of is fear. That passion alone, in the trouble of it, exceeding all other accidents. Such as have been well banged in some skirmish, may yet, all wounded and bloody as they are, be brought on again the next day to the charge; but such as have once conceived a good sound fear of the enemy will never be made so much as to look the enemy in the face. Such as are in immediate fear of losing their estates, of banishment or of slavery, live in perpetual anguish, and lose all appetite and repose. And the many people who, impatient of perpetual alarms of fear, have hanged or drowned themselves, or dashed themselves to pieces, give us sufficiently to understand that fear is more importunate and insupportable than death itself."

        A well known writer, who is a psychopathic sufferer, writes: "Carlyle laid his finger upon the truth, when he said that the reason why the pictures of the past were always so golden in tone, so delicate in outline, was because the quality of fear was taken from them. It is the fear of what may be and what must be that overshadows present happiness; and if fear is taken from us, we are happy. The strange thing is that we can not learn not to be afraid, even though all the darkest and saddest of our experiences have left us unscathed; and if we could but find a reason for the mingling of fear with our lives, we should have gone towards the solving of the riddle of the world."

        Anxiety states of neuroses and psychoses are essentially due to the awakening of the fear instinct, normally present in every living being. The fear instinct is a fundamental one; it is only inhibited by the whole course of civilization and by the training and education of life. Like the jinn of the "Arabian Nights," it slumbers in the breast of every normal individual, and comes fully to life in the various neuroses and psychoses.

        Kraepelin and his school lay special stress on the fact that "Fear is by far the most important persistent emotion in morbid conditions. . . .Fear is manifested by anxious excitement and by anxious tension." "Experience," says Kraepelin, "shows an intimate relationship between insistent psychosis and the so-called 'phobias,' the anxiety states which in such patients become associated with definite impressions, actions, and views." The states are associated with the thought of some unknown danger. Violent heart action, pallor, a feeling of anxiety; tremor, cold sweat, meteorisms, diarrhea, polyuria, weakness in the legs, fainting spells, attack the patient, who may lose control of his limbs and occasionally suffer complete collapse.

        "These states," says Kraepelin, with his usual insight into abnormal mental life, "remind one of the feeling of anxiety which in the case of healthy people may, in view of a painful situation or of a serious danger, deprive one of the calmness of judgment and confidence in his movements."

        Thus, we find from different standpoints that the feeling of anxiety with its accompanying phenomena is one of the most potent manifestations of animal instincts, the fear instinct, which is at the basis of all psychopathic, neurotic maladies.

        The fear instinct, as the subtle and basic instinct of life, is well described by Kipling:―

Very softly down the glade runs a waiting, watching shade,
    And the whisper spreads and widens far and near;
And the sweat is on thy brow, for he passes even now―
    He is Fear, O Little Hunter, he is Fear!

Ere the moon has climbed the mountain, ere the rocks are ribbed with light,
    When the downward dipping trails are dank and drear,
Comes a breathing hard behind thee―snuffle―snuffle through the night―
    It is Fear, O Little Hunter, it is Fear!

On thy knees and draw the bow; bid the shrilling arrow go:
    In the empty, mocking thicket plunge the spear;
But thy hands are loosed and weak, and the blood has left thy cheek―
    It is Fear, O Little Hunter, it is Fear!

When the heat-cloud sucks the tempest, when the slivered pine trees fall,
    When the blinding, blaring rain-squalls lash and veer;
Through the war gongs of the thunder rings a voice roore loud than all―
    It is Fear, O Little Hunter, it is Fear!

Now the spates are banked and deep; now the footless boulders leap―
    Now the lightning shows each littlest leaf-rib clear;
But thy throat is shut and dried, and thy heart against thy side
    Hammers: Fear, O Little Hunter,―This is Fear!

        It is interesting to learn what a practical and thoughtful surgeon, such as George Crile, has to say on the matter of fear. Dr. Crile lays stress on the facts that in his researches he finds evidence that the phenomena of fear have a physical basis similar to those morphological changes in the brain cells observed in certain stages of surgical shock and in fatigue. . . .That the brain is definitely damaged by fear may be proved by experiments.

        "According to Sherrington the nervous system responds in action as a whole, and to but one stimulus at a time. . . .Under the influence of fear or (fear of) injury the integration of the common path is most nearly absolute. . . .Hence fear and injury (or fear of injury) drain the cup of energy to the dregs. . . .

        "We can understand why it is a patient consumed by fear suffers so many bodily impairments, (so many functional disturbances) and diseases even. We can understand the grave digestive and metabolic disturbances under strain of fear. . . .We can understand the variations in the gastric analyses in a timid patient alarmed over his condition and afraid of the hospital. The patient is integrated by fear, and since fear takes precedence over all other impulses, no organ can function normally (under the influence of fear)" . . . .Dr. Crile arrives at the conclusion that "Fear dominates the various organs and parts of the body." . . .

        Dr. Crile lays special stress on the pathological character of the fear instinct: "That the brain is definitely influenced, damaged even, by fear has been proved by the following experiments: Rabbits were frightened by a dog, but were neither injured nor chased. After various periods of time the animals were killed and their brain cells compared with the brain cells of normal animals, wide-spread changes were seen (in the brain cells of the animals affected by fear). The principal clinical phenomena expressed by the rabbits were rapid heart, accelerated respiration, prostration, tremors, and a rise in temperature. The dog showed similar phenomena, excepting that, instead of such muscular relaxation as was shown by the rabbit, it exhibited aggressive muscular action."

        Animals in which the fear instinct can be aroused to a high degree become paralyzed and perish. The animal mechanism is by no means perfect. A stab in the heart, a rip in the abdomen, a cut of the carotids, a prick in the medulla, a scratch of a needle infected with anthrax, or tetanus bacilli, a drop of hydrocyanic acid, an arrow tipped with curare, extinguish every spark of life. Organic material may be delicate and complex, but for that reason it is highly imperfect and vulnerable.

        Living matter is the feeblest material in nature, and is as fragile as a delicate crystal vase. Protoplasm, or living matter, may be wonderful material, but it can be crushed with a pebble. The most beautiful colors may be displayed by a thin, delicate bubble, but it bursts at the least touch. Living matter is like a bubble, like foam on the ocean. Perhaps no better material is available for the functions of life.

        Meanwhile it remains true that the flimsiness of living material makes it easily subject to decay and destruction. It is a profound error, having its root in prejudice, that nature always helps, and that the processes going on in the organism are always of benefit to the individual. Nature is as ready to destroy life as to protect it.

        Preservation or destruction of a particular individual depends on the fact as to whether or no normal or pathological processes predominate in the total economy of the organism. This holds true of the fear instinct. The fear instinct is a delicate mechanism, and when its action is slightly intensified, the animal is on the way to destruction. For the cosmic forces are careless of the creatures which keep on pouring forth in generous profusion from the lap of nature.

        Living matter, or protoplasm can only exist under special, restricted conditions,the least variation means death. The more complicated, and more organized protoplasm is, the more restricted are the conditions of its existence. A rise of a couple of degrees of temperature or a fall means disease and death. The same holds true of the rise and fall of quantity and quality of bodily secretion of glands and of other organs. Protoplasm can only exist in an optimum environment. Any change spells disease and death.

        The fear instinct, being at the heart of highly organized life activities, is delicately responsive to any changes and variations from the optimum, requisite for the proper functioning of the organism. Any deviation from the optimal, environment, external or internal, produces corresponding changes in the fear instinct with consequent pathological changes in the organism.

        The fear instinct like a delicate indicator is the first to get deranged, with harmful results to the organism as a whole. We can thus realize the importance of keeping the fear instinct in good condition. We can understand the significance of Plato's doctrine of rational guidance of the fear instinct. "What to fear and what not to fear is at the basis of all organized life, individual and social.1

 

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1 See my work "The Source and Aim of Human Progress." Link

 

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