Fearing new dangers: phobias and the cognitive complexity of human emotions

Luc Faucher and Isabelle Blanchette

in Maladapting Minds

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print March 2011 | ISBN: 9780199558667
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754647 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Fearing new dangers: phobias and the cognitive complexity of human emotions

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Philosophers of science have often been critical of ultimate explanations of mental illnesses. One of the few cases that managed, thus far, to keep up in this storm is the evolutionary account of phobias, of which Dominic Murphy once said that it is ‘the best current candidate for an evolutionary explanation of mental disorder’ (Murphy 2005, 746). The basic assumption behind this particular explanation is that our fear-regulating mechanisms are modular. This assumption would then explain why we tend to be selective in what we fear, i.e. why phobias are often about ‘archaic’ dangers, such as snakes and spiders, and why such phobic processes are mostly automatic, i.e. beyond cortical control. In this chapter, we challenge this theory on many counts. Thus we argue that the effects used to conclude to the existence of a prepared mechanism of fear are also shown by ‘novel’ objects, such as guns and syringes. Moreover, we also show that threat detection is the result of a larger process involving both limbic and cortical structures. In our view, these objections indicate that our fear mechanisms are probably much more flexible than evolutionary psychologists and psychiatrists seem to think.

Chapter.  12594 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Psychiatry

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