Having a fear of insects is not uncommon. Even those people who claim to be fearless when encountering creepy-crawlies still probably become startled upon unexpectedly seeing one in their home. Since a few insects can inflict painful, or even deadly bites or stings, our instinctive fear of them keeps us safe. It is generally believed that humans developed this sense of fear over the course of evolution in order to recognize and avoid threats to our survival. However, how do we know that we are really experiencing “fear” when encountering creepy-crawlies? After all, the feeling of being scared does not necessarily match the feeling experienced during arthropod encounters.
Obviously, being alone in the dark, watching scary movies, or being stocked by a stranger elicits feelings of fear, but seeing a creepy looking arthropod, like a tarantula or a praying mantis, does not make us feel the same way. Of course, this is not to say that arthropod encounters don’t elicit negative feelings that make people uncomfortable, but perhaps we humans have been misjudging our own feelings toward insects. Many people would argue that the feelings that one experiences upon unexpectedly finding a creepy arthropod are merely subjective feelings that differ from individual to individual. This is a sensible opinion, but most neuroscientists would disagree. A recent study had researchers examining how our brains function upon finding insects. As it turns out, we are not scared of these multi-legged creatures at all, but we are certainly disgusted by them.
Scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology have recently determined that the part of the human brain associated with disgust, and not fear, becomes activated upon finding insects. The feeling of disgust is associated with contamination and disease. This finding surprised the researchers that had been expecting to record a neurological fear response, but the fear centers remained inactive upon exposure to insects. Understandably, the study subjects became particularly disgusted upon seeing the common household insects that are capable of spreading disease pathogens, such as roaches. In fact, household insects elicited more fear in the subjects than insects in the wild. This makes sense, as humans have naturally become conditioned to fear the very pathogen-spreading insects that we encounter most often.
After reading this blog article, do you find it easy to believe that insects elicit feelings of disgust rather than fright? Or do you feel like the study’s finding runs contrary to your own feelings when finding an insect in your home?