Spiders freak me out. I mean, they really…freak…me…out. I can handle the little ones; the ones with features so tiny, they are barely discernible. It’s the ones that have substantive girth, the ones with tricked out designs resembling alien heads on their backs  – those are the ones that cause me to fear for my personal safety. The logical part of my brain reminds me that I am 200 times larger than the average spider, and further, there are only 3 species of poisonous spiders in Ontario. In the battle mano a arachnid, I’m pretty sure I’d come out on top. So what’s with my visceral urge to flee? Why does emotion trump logic and hard data?

What You Don’t Know Can Kill You”, an article in the July/August 2011 issue of Discover Magazine, speaks to the “perplexing tendency of humans to fear rare threats such as shark attacks while blithely ignoring far greater risks like unsafe sex and an unhealthy diet”. The author cites the recent example of Americans spending $200 to hoard $10 bottles of iodine pills after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The U.S. EPA estimated the radiation reaching the west coast of the United States to be about 1/100,000th the dose one would receive on a round-trip international flight.  And yet over the course of a few weeks, Americans wiped out pharmacy supplies of the drug.  Why are we so inept at gauging real risk?  According to the article, the core of the issue lies in conflicting inputs: logic vs. instinct. The instinct part of the equation appears to have roots in evolution, which results in a healthy fear of sharks, bobcats and the like. The article states that deep inside the amygdala (the brain’s emotional core), "our hardwired gut reactions developed in a world full of hungry beasts and warring clans, where they served important functions".  No matter that each year, falling coconuts kill ten times as many people as sharks do.  Move over logic, emotion is driving this car now.


              * Photo courtesy of Jennifer Hartman and one heckuva digital zoom function

Jennifer Hartman, guest blogger