Scaring Babies for Science

By Bill Andrews | October 20, 2017 1:05 pm

(Credit: Shutterstock)

“Snakes, why’d it have to be snakes?” so sayeth Indiana Jones, and so, apparently, say babies too.

In a study published Wednesday in Frontiers in Psychology, European neuroscientists determined that our instinctive fears of snakes and spiders are so primal, even babies become alarmed at the sight of them. How’d they figure it out? Well, they scared some babies. For science!

Primal Fear

Though not everyone is frightened of the two creepy crawlies, studies have shown more than a third of the child population and adult population have a strong dislike of them, and they’re the most reported specific phobias. Even though venomous spiders and snakes aren’t a huge problem for most of us now, they’re still “ancestral threats” our primate ancestors had to deal with for millions of years. It’s possible we’ve evolved too quickly to recognize — and appropriately freak out over — such threats.

Scientists had already shown these fears are intrinsic to most people, but they were usually in adults or adolescents, so it was possible they’d learned such fears from their environments. To really prove whether or not human brains were automatically wired to dislike snakes and spiders, the experiments had to test people with almost no environmental influence: babies.

Jeepers Creepers

For this study, the neuroscientists showed 16 six-month-olds pictures of snakes and fish, and spiders and flowers. The idea was to match the scary animals with visually similar non-threats, to make sure it was really the snake-ness or spider-ness the babies would react to. And react they did, as eye-tracking software made clear: their pupils were noticeably bigger when looking at the spiders and snakes, which corresponds to a much greater stress reaction.

But it was a success, since the results do suggest we have an innate evolved mechanism in our brains that is specifically attuned to notice, and not much care for, snakes and spiders. And the babies themselves were fine, with their parents right there — though the paper does include this ominous line: “The local ethics committee declared this study exempt.”

So as you’re deciding on the spookiest decorations for Halloween, keep in mind just how deep some fears go. And, if you have an infant you don’t mind scaring a bit, the right décor could be the perfect chance for some DIY neuroscience!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology, Senses
  • TLongmire

    Snakes should not at face value elicit such fear in humans but I believe the root cause of our phobias lies in the fact that they are deceptively intelligent and respond to body language in the moment.

  • CarolAST

    I resent the presumption of those who believe that everyone hates snakes and spiders.

  • OWilson

    Sorry, animal lovers, they were a net threat to out forbears, hence a genetic disposition to revulsion.

    No more prejudiced than our intense dislike of the smell of rotting food or human flesh!

    Newly hatched chicks have been shown to panic when a black silhouette shape of a hawk is passed in a forward direction over their cage, but not if it is moved backwards to more resemble a duck.

    All a part of “profiling” radar that we come by honestly, from Mother Nature herself! :)

    It has a net effect of increasing our odds of survival, regardless of the snowflakes who claim otherwise.

    Discrimination was once a virtue, and was once taught as “street proofing” by smart parents.

    • Nathan Hofstad

      You seem to think that being captivated by nature and its creatures is a bad thing somehow-along with wanting future generations to be able to enjoy the same beauty and thrill of the experience too. I really don’t like the idea of being forced to live in an ugly-ass “McDonaldized” dust bowl of a world.

      • OWilson

        Not at all. The wonders of nature continue to fascinate me.

        There are some humans genetically predisposed to eating worms, slugs, insects, rats and dogs, while others (closer to home) prefer larger fare, like cows, sheep and pigs, and your hated hamburgers.

        In some cultures, they are still eating people!

        The point is, there’s something for everybody on Mother Nature’s table.

  • TLongmire

    Facial symmetry is an indicator of potential and the above baby reached its pinnacle very early.

  • mjkbk

    I dunno. Comparing snakes and spiders….to fish and flowers which DON’T travel on dry land with us. Maybe even 6-month-olds might be able to discern a difference between a creature shown existing in water, and one seen in a dry (thus, more human) environment . And some may actually recognize a difference between animals and PLANTS.

    Why not show babies a snake, and some other reptile with a wicked set of teeth, for example? Or a spider and a centipede? But a FLOWER? I’m not even sure a 6-month-old is THAT stupid……


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