News – Your fear of snakes or spiders is innate, study finds

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Saturday, October 21, 2017, 6:30 PM – You might be able to blame your fear of snakes or spiders on an innate ability to detect danger, bred by millions of years of evolution.  A new study finds that babies as young as six months old already fear snakes and spiders, further supporting research suggesting that aversion to the creatures is innate in humans: 

Scientists from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences and Upssala University, Sweden found that six-month-old infants’ pupils dilated more while looking at photos of the creatures compared with images of flowers or fish.

“Pupillary dilation is directly linked to activity in the noradrenergic system, arousal and increased focus and attention,” the study reads. This means the babies displayed more physical signs of stress when looking at snakes and spiders compared with the other non-threatening images.

Safe and repeated exposure to snakes and spiders can eliminate this fear even if it is present at birth, but these results suggest it is possible these two very common fears are a product of evolution.

“Fear of spiders and snakes are the most reported specific phobias, even though these animals hardly pose a threat to humans today (Russell, 1991; Fredrikson et al., 1996)”, the study reads. “Venomous spiders and snakes have, however, been dangerous for our ancestors for 40–60 million years of co-existence, possibly allowing primates to evolve mechanisms to quickly detect these potential threats (New and German, 2015).”

In summary, they said, the fact that babies can quickly detect and become physically destressed at the sight of snakes and spiders suggest an “evolved mechanism” that tells them to be fearful.

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Fears and phobias can also be developed throughout our lives if we become conditioned to associate a stimulus (i.e. a spider or snake) with an adverse event.

Creepy crawlers in Canada?

If the content of this article alone has made you cringe, you can find comfort in the fact that snake and spider bites are quite rare in Canada.

According to the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Canada has 25 species of snakes, 12 of which are at risk of extinction and 3 of which are isolated or have subspecies that are considered at risk. Two Canadian rattlesnakes are poisonous: the Massassauga, found in southwestern Ontario; and the Western rattlesnake, found in parts of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. 

Bites from these snakes are rare, as they are normally timid and try to avoid people. That being said, they will bite if they feel threatened, so the federation recommends to be careful to cover up and be alert when you’re in their territory. 

There is one poisonous spider in Canada, the black widow, but the government of Canada says that the species, like most spiders, is shy, nocturnal, and usually avoids humans by running away. Most spiders we actually encounter in our daily lives, from the common house spider to the dock spider, are completely harmless and survive by eating other tiny pests.

Source: Frontiers Journal – Psychology | Live Science | The Canadian Wildlife Federation

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