Snakes: Ew or Cool?

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As parents have long suspected, kids have an eye for creepy, crawly critters. “But this doesn’t mean they are necessarily afraid,” Vanessa LoBue told Discovery News. Indeed many kids are quick to scramble after said creatures, catch ‘em, and then promptly scare the daylights out of their mom.

Sorry Mom.

In a recent study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, LoBue and colleagues found that children as young as seven months will pay more attention to videos of snakes, especially when accompanied by scary soundtracks, than of videos of non-threatening animals, such as an elephant, regardless of whether the soundtrack played fearful music or soothing music. (Though one might argue the scare-factor of an elephant to a seven-month old.) The infants, though watchful of the snakes, showed no signs of fear.

The study follows on the work co-author David H. Rakison of Carnegie Mellon University did with spiders and infants as well as research Susan Mineka of Northwestern University did with monkeys, which when raised in a lab show no fear snakes. When Mineka attempted to instill a fear of rabbits, flowers, and snakes in the monkeys they much more readily learned to fear the snakes.

Arne Ohman at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden showed that for humans, once a fear of snakes or spiders is established, when a photo of a snake or spider is shown the fear response will last longer than a fear response learned to something less immediately threatening such as a mushroom. The research suggests an evolutionary tendency for humans to have the ability to quickly learn to fear these creepy crawlies and then respond metabolically longer in that state of fear during an encounter.

Which explains why with some people, panicking is a normal response to these perceived threats. But it is not a fear we are born with.

Tarantulas Provoke Brain’s Fear Circuits

“There is no evidence that I have seen to suggest that snake or spider fear is innate in humans, so I do not think that we are born with any sort of fear of snakes or spiders. However, what research suggests is humans might have a bias to quickly learn to fear these animals, or very readily associate their presence with fear,” LoBue says.

She also studied the interactions of three-year olds and found that children who were already afraid of snakes were just as quick to spot them in a group of photos as children who had not developed such a fear.

“My research has shown that children certainly respond differently to snakes and spiders than other objects.” But whether most children are afraid of snakes and spiders is still an open question, she says. “The next step in my research is to explore at what age most children show signs of being afraid of snakes and spiders and how this fear actually develops.”

The No-Fear Woman (And What Her Brain Reveals)

IMAGES: Children with spider and snake; Corbis images.

 

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