Is fear of snakes and spiders innate or acquired?

Many of us have a fear of snakes and spiders, but where does arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) come from? Some scientists believe that we learn to be afraid of these creatures as we grow up, that is, these fears are acquired. Other scientists believe that they are innate features of the psyche.

But if they are embedded in us from birth, it means that there were times when spiders and snakes were of such size and inhabited the earth in such numbers that fear of them was written into us forever. Of course, scientists will tell us about evolution, but it seems likely that at some time in the past humans faced a threat of incredible proportions. It’s like in science fiction novels, when colonists arrive on another planet and try to inhabit it, but encounter species that are indigenous to that planet and the new “Promised Paradise” quickly turns into a “Spider-Snake Hyena.” Could this be what happened to our ancestors?

Studies conducted by psychologists from the Max Planck Society Institute for Human Brain and Cognitive Research, the University of Vienna and the University of Uppsala showed that even very young children are afraid of snakes and spiders, although they have no experience with them. The children were shown pictures with spiders or flowers in one version, or with snakes or fish in another version, and the psychological reaction to the picture was assessed by changes in pupil size. It is known that pupils dilate when aroused when we experience strong emotions and stress. It follows from this study that fear of snakes and spiders is “embedded” in our brains.

Human ancestors apparently lived side by side with the kind of snakes and spiders that were really worth fearing. That’s why we have special neurons in our brains that respond specifically to snakes or spiders. These nerve cells are located in the optic thalamus, the part of the brain responsible for visual attention and threat recognition.

We know from earlier studies that young children are not afraid of bears or rhinoceroses or any other potentially dangerous animals. This speaks in favor of the innate fear of snakes and spiders.

Indirect confirmation of the fact that in the past humans were openly hunted by giant snakes and spiders, can serve many mentions of this in ancient tales, myths and legends. For example, the Slavs have a legend about the “Yellow-belly” – a huge-sized snake with a muscle ball at the end of its tail, with which it could kill a couple of oxen with one blow.

The most interesting that these stories about the giant snake with a ball on its tail, I was told by my grandmother, who personally saw how at the crossing of the wagon with the oxen across the river, in the place where there was a ford, from a pit in the river appeared a huge snake, which with its ball on the tail blew the wagon to pieces and dragged one of the oxen into an underwater pit. This was just before the war (the Great Patriotic War).

It turns out that these snakes lived on the territory of Russia quite recently, and disappeared because of the outbreak of major hostilities. Maybe they are not extinct, but went underground? About ten years ago, during an expedition in the Rostov region, I walked in the morning when there was still dew on the feather-grass steppe and saw a trail of trampled grass. A very large trail, as if a huge hose had been dragged across the dew-covered grass. The trail went into a ravine overgrown with thorns. After following the trail, I came to a huge burrow at the edge of the ravine. And it was clearly not the burrow of a baybuck or a fox…

Ah, in the ancient city of Mohenjo Daro, which is known for the fact that in ancient times it was destroyed and apparently a nuclear explosion, were found clay figurines of strange creatures that resemble spiders, but apparently they were – reasonable. Maybe that’s what happened and that’s the reason for our fear?

By the way, fear of snakes and spiders can be useful for survival. If people were not afraid of these creatures, they might become victims of their venom. Now spiders and snakes are not gigantic in size, but nevertheless some are poisonous enough to send a person to the afterlife with one bite.

So we can conclude that the fear of snakes and spiders is an innate fear that helped our ancestors to survive. But this does not mean that it cannot be overcome. Many people successfully treat their arachnophobia and ophidiophobia with psychotherapy and other methods.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x