Snakes and spiders on the brain

A little while ago, I wrote a piece, ‘Innate’ fear of snakes?, in which I took issue with a University of Virginia study that was described by a science writer (and perhaps by the researchers) as showing that humans have an ‘innate’ fear of snakes. At the time, I argued that what their research had shown was a propensity to pay attention to snake shapes, and not that this was an ‘innate’ fear, for reasons that I banged on about for a fair few words (go to the original if you’re a glutton for snake-related musings).

And now, vindication. Well, as much vindication as you can get considering that psychological research is liable to be undermined by another study in the next few months. According to a posting today on Science Daily, ‘Unlocking The Psychology Of Snake And Spider Phobias,’ researchers at the University of Queensland have tested both snake experts and those who are naive about the creatures to see if there is an innate fear.

In the study, researchers compared the responses to stimuli of participants with no particular experience with snakes and spiders, to that of snake and spider experts.
“Previous research has argued that snakes and spiders attract preferential attention (they capture attention very quickly) and that during this early processing a negative (fear) response is generated… as an implicit and indexed subconscious [action],” Dr [Helena] Purkis said.
“We showed that although everyone preferentially attends to snakes or spiders in the environment as they are potentially dangerous, only inexperienced participants display a negative response.”

Although this finding is inherently interesting, I think that the more general point that Dr. Purkis makes is perhaps more intriguing still. She says, in the Science Daily story, ‘you can preferentially attend to something without a negative emotional response being elicited,’ and this is allegedly one of the ‘first’ proofs of that (I doubt that, but I don’t have time to chase down contrary evidence). Researchers are even looking into the possibility that this ‘preferential attention’ mechanism might be similar in both phobia and love(! I’m not going to even touch the possible comic potential of the same mechanism leading to fear or attraction, although it would explain a number of things, perhaps including some very baaaaad experiences in my romantic life…).

This suggests (to me) that we may have an interesting ‘nodular’ system in perception, which has a capacity to quickly attend to certain crucial sorts of stimulants (such as snakes, spiders, or things that might attract our love), and that these stimuli get quickly sorted and linked to very basic emotional responses. I say ‘nodular’ because I imagine the system more as a kind of flow chart of decision points through which the system works very quickly, with slower conscious mechanisms that might modify, check, or even over-rule entirely more automatic, quicker responses at later stages. Rather than having a kind of closed, pre-ordained, unmodifiable ‘module’ in our brain that hates and fears snakes (or loves certain stimuli) — the ‘innate’ fear of snakes modular view — we have this trainable system which might come with certain presets or predispositions, but that can be modified or molded due to plasticity.

But the whole thing gets better because Dr. Purkis is looking for volunteers:

I also need people who are allergic to dogs or cats, people who are apprehensive of snakes and spiders, and people who have no fear of snakes and spiders but don’t explicitly work with them… [Additionally, we’re looking to get in touch with] people who are willing to have their pets (dogs, cats, horses, cattle, snakes, spiders) photographed for use as experimental stimuli.

More information on Dr. Purkis’s research can be found here, but don’t look at her bio if you’re liable to feeling old (what can I say, my 40th birthday is fast approaching).

And on a loosely related note, I had to kill a five-foot red bellied black snake in the swimming pool the other day. Fortunately, the water was cold enough that he or she was moving pretty slow. Too much venom in one of those to let it think that the pool was part of its territory.

Thanks to Coturnix for pointing out this article.

University of Queensland (2008, March 24). Unlocking The Psychology Of Snake And Spider Phobias. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 25, 2008, from /releases/2008/03/080320132646.htm

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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