Borwin Bandelow, phobia researcher, on fear in COEXIST

Franziska Stünkel Coexist Borwin Bandelow phobia phobias xenophobia
© 2019 Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, Franziska Stünkel and authors [and translators]. ISBN 978-3-86828-918-3 phobia researcher Borwin Bandelow arachnophobia xenophobia

To accompany the exhibition at Leica Galerie Salzburg, 18.10.2019-15.02.2020 arachnophobia xenophobia

Prof. Borwin Bandelow
Psychiatrist, Phobia Researcher


Our world is becoming ever more cosmopolitan, distances are shrinking, and humanity is growing at breathtaking speed. This means that, now more than ever before, we must learn to coexist in peace. However, in recent years, it seems that people have been distancing themselves ever further from coexistence. The influx of migrants is increasingly unnerving people not only in Europe, but also in the USA, in the Middle East, in Asia or Australia—everywhere that people are fleeing war or hunger. Politics now appears to run on one theme only: How can immigration be prevented further,* how can the immigrants be brought back to their home countries as fast as possible? Scant trust is shown toward immigrants, especially those who look different or come from totally different cultures. phobia researcher Borwin Bandelow arachnophobia

“Xenophobia” is the word of the hour. How does this fear of foreigners come about?

phobia researcher Borwin Bandelow xenophobia
Tens of thousands of years ago, humans lived in 20 to 50-member nomadic groups that consisted of several smaller families. People kept themselves to themselves and helped one another mutually. All hunted quarry was distributed fairly among all members. Group cohesion was a basis for division of labor and technological progress during the development of hunting weapons and other vital tools. Contact with other groups was also maintained, for situations like,** for example, when when it came to choosing a partner. When food resources became scarce, though, war was waged against the other tribes. When it was all about survival, members closed ranks in their own tribe as a sworn community, while the foreign hordes were combated in bloody tribal wars. Up to 30 percent of men died at that period as a result of belligerent confrontations, therefore more than in today’s global wars. For the individual it was imperative to be integrated within a tribe. Loners had a short life. Those who defended themselves aggressively against foreign tribes survived. This strategy was a success for millennia and was passed down from generation to generation. This combination of love of the ethnic group and hostility toward foreigners, called “parochialism”, secured survival. The combination asserted itself in the genes over many generations. According to the principle of “survival of the fittest”, the survivors were the people who had been endowed with the parochialism gene at birth, while those who had not internalized it died an early death and had no children to pass anything on to. This can be best explained by the example of fear of spiders: most people in Germany have arachnophobia, even though it is completely redundant today, since in this country, almost no spider poses any actual threat. In prehistoric times, though, there were dangerous eight-legged creatures whose deadly bite was something to be feared. Those who had inherited a fear of spiders survived; the others got bitten and died. Throughout human history it was vital that there be no need for every life form to relearn fear of dangerous animals such as saber-tooth tigers, wolves, or snakes, but that it be present already in the genes. Every human, and every animal too, is therefore born with a complete set of fears of dangerous animals and other natural hazards. Had it been otherwise in the history of evolution, there would have been too many “total failures”. For example, every life form would have had to relive the experience that rattlesnake bites are fatal—without, however, ever having to go through the experience.*** phobia researcher Borwin Bandelow arachnophobia xenophobia

All these phobias—fear of animals, therefore, but also xenophobia—are stored in a relatively crudely structured area of our brain. A simple area, because this phobia-steered fear system is very old in terms of evolution history. It is present not only in humans but also in rats, dogs, or cows. It is very straightforwardly organized: for example, it cannot tell the difference between a saber-tooth tiger and a pussycat. This less intellectually gifted fear system classifies both of them as feline predators and therefore mortally dangerous. This explains why there are so many people with cat phobias, even though any child knows that cats are not dangerous.

Then there is another area in the brain, which we call**** the “reasoning brain”. This area is probably located near the frontal lobe. That is the place where we perceive ourselves, where we are able to reflect upon ourselves, and where we consciously feel emotions such as fear. This area, the so-called prefrontal cortex, is capable of intelligent thought, and, especially, of weighing-up the pros and cons of a conflict situation. For example, if the primitive fear system reports that a big spider is approaching, representing a great danger, the reasoning brain objects that this is only a simple German house spider, which can be picked up without any problems. Namely, the hard-of-thinking fear system and the intelligent reasoning brain do not necessarily collaborate, but are often antagonists. One of them wins one time, the other the next. You would think that our clever reasoning brain would always come out triumphant; but this is not the case. The simple fear system may be at the level of a chicken, but in evolutionary history terms it is the older area of brain, and was always vital for ensuring the survival of animals and people. Therefore, it generally has primacy. This explains why some people absolutely refuse to touch a spider, even though the reasoning brain tells them that nothing can happen. The basic fear system is also primitive in intelligent people—even a math professor can have a spider phobia. So it is not a matter of intellect or education. The explanation behind why there are people who can pick up a big hairy tarantula without any problems, and others who refuse even to go into the basement for fear there might be a little spider there, does not lie in things like bad life experiences. The fact that people react to spiders so differently is due probably to “standard distribution”—that is to say, fear of spiders, just like height or other human characteristics, is distributed statistically across the population. phobia researcher Borwin Bandelow arachnophobia

However, it is possible to overcome any phobia. In the course of life, phobias like these can be forced into the background through habituation.
phobia researcher Borwin Bandelow arachnophobia xenophobia


Square brackets indicate my text prior to copy editor’s changes

[* how can further immigration be prevented – in line with the German text!]
[** such as, for example, choosing a partner.]
[*** a very unfortunate change by the copy editor, who miscomprehended ‘to benefit from’, which implies – of course – that the life form survives and goes on to benefit from something now learnt! (Or not.) Originally, my formulation made sense: —without, however, ever being able to benefit from this experience. The German at this point: – ohne aber jemals von dieser Erfahrung jemals profitieren zu können. ]
[**** In accordance with the author’s conversational tone, was originally “let us call it the” nennen wir das mal – copy editor’s change] phobia researcher Borwin Bandelow

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