Understanding Fear Using Cognitive Science

You are walking down a dark alley, and suddenly you feel somebody is following you. Your heartbeat speeds up. Your breath gets heavy.

You feel fear.

Fear is a primitive emotion. It alerts us to dangerous situations. Those of our ancestors who felt afraid of lurking dangers, ran before they could be attacked. They survived, and in time passed on this trait to us, modern humans.

Do you know that fear can be explained as a chain reaction that begins with a stressful stimulus and ends with the release of certain chemicals in our body?

These chemicals are the reasons behind fast breathing, a racing heart, and energized muscles. Those reactions happen when suddenly a spider falls on your shoulder, which acts as a stimulus.

Our brain is a complicated organ. It contains over one hundred billion nerve cells that build up a complex network of communications. Now, if you learn about your mind and how your thought process and intelligence work, you might be able to control your fear. For this, let’s first get a short, short refresher on cognitive science.

understanding fear

What Is Cognitive Science

There are many definitions of cognitive science. But basically, it is an interdisciplinary study of the mind and intelligence. Cognitive science helps us understand what happens inside the brain when one thinks.

This field of study uses the concepts of psychology, philosophy, computer science, neuroscience, and linguistics. The primary goal of cognitive science is to comprehend model human intelligence, with the help of the methodologies and findings of the disciplines contributing to this field.

In this discipline, a variety of techniques from the biological, mathematical, social, and behavioral sciences are used. As opposed to Artificial Intelligence, cognitive science is explained more explicitly using phenomena, not by methodology.

Students who get training in this discipline can make their careers in many different fields, like human-computer interaction, telecommunications, medical analysis, education, and data retrieval.

There are primarily two reasons why cognitive science is important.

Firstly, there is a common assumption that cognition can be viewed as computation. The concept of computation has long been held valuable for building ideas about how thinking can be a natural procedure.

In the past, scientific theories related to the mind depended on clumsy and inefficient analogies with devices like electronic switchboards and clocks. As computer programs emerged, it became possible to see how mechanical devices could find the solution to complicated problems, via the manipulation of symbols, and the creation of productive analogies.

For example, in standard programming languages, the sequence “IF…THEN…” recommends a suitable model which helps us understand how the human brain works or thinks or creates plans.

Secondly, computers are very helpful for testing scientific hypotheses regarding mental function and organization. Hypotheses are tested by creating a model and running it on a computer. If the output of the computer is similar to the real performance of humans, the hypothesis is taken as a supporting one.

In medicine, cognitive science is particularly significant due to the importance of mental problems, like schizophrenia and depression. It is required to understand the cognitive and neural procedures that motivate the functioning of healthy minds, and explain and treat illnesses.

Understanding Fear Using Cognitive Science

The common assumption of cognitive theory explains that thoughts are the main determinants of behavior and emotions. The primary description of this specific mental process is information processing. Theorists often compare the functions of the human mind to a computer.

Now, fear is a basic emotion that is connected with a reaction to a threat, which is useful for activating adaptive and quick reactions in threatening situations.

Also, it is assumed that fear has all the characteristics of basic emotions, like brief duration, unique behaviors and facial expressions, quick and involuntary commencement, associated physiological symptoms, etc.

According to Robert Johnson, a research scholar on cognitive science, when an individual deals with real danger, fear can become a significant means of self-preservation. However, many humans suffer from unrealistic and chronic fears, like phobias and obsessions. This brings unnecessary distress among individuals and can also largely decrease their capability to function normally in society.

Therapists utilize social cognitive theory to cure fear and other psychological illnesses. Different kinds of psychological treatments are offered to treat fear. These treatments focus on dealing with the main cause of the fear via a psychodynamic approach or directly dealing with the fear via behavioral therapy. There are four common steps taken by professionals for cognitive restructuring.

These are as follows:

  1. The therapist will ask different questions to understand what is going on in the mind of a person who is feeling anxious. Following this, the professional also conducts a discussion to check whether the person is thinking really true or not.
  2. The professional will then listen to what the person has to say.
  3. In the next step, the expert will ask that individual to summarize the primary points of the session.
  4. Finally, the professional will ask questions that will let the person combine and examine more realistic and new views on his/her fear or anxiety. This will help the person in restructuring thought patterns.

Final Words

Cognitive science can be very useful if it is used right. You must gain knowledge on it to understand what fear is and how therapies or treatments are conducted based on cognitive theory.

Here are some takeaway points from this post:

  • Cognitive science deals with the human mind and helps us understand what really happens in our brains when we think.
  • Fear is a basic emotion that occurs in reaction to a danger or threat.
  • Cognitive theory is used to develop an effective treatment plan for disorders related to anxiety and fear.

Here’s a great editorial on fear by Dr. Luke R. Johnson, Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, Uniformed Services University School of Medicine, Bethesda: How Fear and Stress Shape the Mind.

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Author Bio: Kady Smith is a teacher, writer, and professional blogger.

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