Sunday, August 14, 2016

A New Understanding Of Phobias

The difference between your phobias and mine is that mine make sense.

I've always assumed that there were two kinds of irrational fears, the first being the kind that we learn in childhood, often through trauma. The second are those that have emerged through the process of evolution: it makes sense that the early humans with the capacity to learn a healthy aversion to, say, snakes would be less likely to be bitten by poisonous ones and would therefore be more likely to survive to pass on a tendency toward that specific caution through their genes. I could never quite wrap my brain around that explanation, however, and so assumed that most phobias were either the result of trauma, teaching/role modeling by loved ones, or, perhaps simply a hyperactive tendency toward caution.

So I found this fascinating:

Memories can be passed down to later generations through genetic switches that allow offspring to inherit the experience of their ancestors, according to new research that may explain how phobias can develop.

It seems that researchers at the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta have managed to create a generation of lab rats with an irrational fear of the scent of cherry blossoms by associating the fragrance with a stressful experience in a previous generation. The brains of the trained mice as well as their offspring showed actual structural changes which caused all subsequent generations to share their cherry blossom aversion.

Rats are not humans, of course, but the implications are fascinating. I've often wondered about the phobias of the children I teach. I once taught a boy who had an irrational fear of pinecones and it was a dark, dark day when he finally looked up into the branches of the pine tree on our playground. I was sure his parents had done nothing to "cause" that particular phobia. Another boy became hysterical whenever we sang the "Happy Birthday" song. He was fine with all other songs, but that one put him over the edge. When our daughter Josephine was an infant we lived within a block of the Pike Place Public Market where I would take her nearly every day, often stopping in front of a tank of Dungeness crabs where I figured she would be entertained while I had a cup of coffee. When she later developed such a full-on crab phobia that we had to take special routes through the supermarket to avoid passing them, I figured it was all my fault, but this morning I'm telling myself that the blame really belongs to a traumatized ancestor.

For the most part, this falls into the category of information that is interesting, but not particularly useful. I have always taken children's seemingly irrational fears seriously (even while I'll admit to  having sometimes teased adults), because the fear is clearly real, even if I don't share it. The source of that fear is immaterial. But it is still a compelling idea.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is the question: If phobias can be inherited in this multi-generational way, what other of our brain changing experiences, positive or negative, do we pass on to our children and their children? Fascinating.

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