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Science & Technology

Fear of snakes 'is of evolutionary origin'

By T.K. Randall
October 21, 2017 · Comment icon 18 comments

You don't have to have seen a snake to be afraid of them. Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Luca Boldrini
A new study in Germany has suggested that we are born with an innate fear of snakes and spiders.
Despite the fact that many of us, especially those who live in colder climates, will have never actually encountered a poisonous snake or giant spider in the wild, a significant percentage of the population still possesses some level of innate fear of them.

During a recent study, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig determined that even infants, despite having never encountered such creatures and despite not being old enough to comprehend the fact that they are dangerous, still exhibited some level of stress response when exposed to images of spiders or snakes.

"When we showed pictures of a snake or a spider to the babies instead of a flower or a fish of the same size and colour, they reacted with significantly bigger pupils," said scientist Stefanie Hoehl.
"In constant light conditions this change in size of the pupils is an important signal for the activation of the noradrenergic system in the brain, which is responsible for stress reactions. Accordingly, even the youngest babies seem to be stressed by these groups of animals."

"We conclude that fear of snakes and spiders is of evolutionary origin."

"Similar to primates, mechanisms in our brains enable us to identify objects as 'spider' or 'snake' and to react to them very fast. This obviously inherited stress reaction in turn predisposes us to learn these animals as dangerous or disgusting."

Source: | Comments (18)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #9 Posted by spud the mackem 7 years ago
How do you find hairy caterpillars , my grandkids say my eyebrows are hairy caterpillars haha
Comment icon #10 Posted by Brok 7 years ago
Fears and phobias aren't personality traits.
Comment icon #11 Posted by Klownzilla 7 years ago
Yeah everything with more than 4 legs is granted an audience with Dr. Foot
Comment icon #12 Posted by fred_mc 7 years ago
That fear of snakes and spiders is an instinct we are born with is something that I have always believed and the study is in line with that.
Comment icon #13 Posted by Sir Smoke aLot 7 years ago
Because fangs are threatening by appearance, yes. I can't remember of cartoons in which snakes are represented as lovely pets either. So, it's partly from appearance but fear from those threatening things is, to some part, also imprinted from interactions with environment.
Comment icon #14 Posted by Susanc241 7 years ago
It's the fact that bits (like the legs) can break off that gets to me hence chunky insects, mice and rats (which also scuttle about fast), snakes etc don't bother me. Butterflies and moths come under the 'chunky' sort.  Centipedes, despite many legs they are short and not spindly.  Aren't we weird? 
Comment icon #15 Posted by MisterMan 7 years ago
It has long been theorized that fear of spiders and snakes has a genetic component.  If you think about how natural selection works, that's not surprising at all.  Individuals who instinctively feared and thus avoided these potentially dangerous forms tended to live longer and have more reproductive success.  This study appears to support the theory. I'm not saying that fear can't be learned.  Of course it can.  But that doesn't exclude a genetic component.    
Comment icon #16 Posted by Piney 7 years ago
I'm not afraid of either but I notice them quicker than I notice other things like ground bees or black wasps. I like watching them. Especially watching a jumping spider hunt or a water snake  eating a frog or fish. I have so much black snakes and garden snakes around my friend asked me if I was breeding them. 
Comment icon #17 Posted by paperdyer 7 years ago
Wasn't a similar study performed in the 1990's with the same conclusion?  I've never liked snakes, spiders, roaches and the like.  I like caterpillars.  My daughter caught one, put a stick and some leaves and moisture in jar with it.  She was hoping for a butterfly but got the scariest looking moth I ever saw.  I let it go, but it almost looked demonic.
Comment icon #18 Posted by Dark_Grey 7 years ago
If fear of snakes is embedded in our genetics, what other "personality" traits have been passed down from pre-history?

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