At 4:00 this morning, dead to the world and just trying to keep myself upright on the toilet, I felt a ghost brush against my forehead. Then against my elbow, then my knee.
As you can imagine, this was a horrendously startling experience. I wasn’t even aware we had ghosts, let alone ones that haunted the bathroom instead of, say, the attic or the creepy hatch that leads under the laundry room. It was only once I was safely back in bed, head under the covers toddler-style, that I realized what I felt was almost certainly not a ghost, but a mosquito hawk.
Unfortunately it was too late. My adrenal glands had already done their dastardly work, and in short order I had gone from normal sleepy person to doped-up superhero ready for action. ABC News paints a more specific picture of the body’s reaction to danger (no matter how foolish) less than three seconds in:
“Thanks to the adrenaline, you're breathing faster (to take in extra oxygen), your heart is racing (to get that oxygen to your muscles), your appetite stalls (the energy your body would use for digestion is diverted toward survival), you've started to sweat (to keep from overheating), and your pupils are dilated (to better ID an enemy).”
It was my body’s way of saying I’m ready. Whether I chose to run like hell or stay and fight that ghost, an eons-old nervous system – finely attuned to the needs of a tree-dweller or savannah-hunter – had my back.
Trouble is, most of the time I no longer really need it. Sure, humanity as a whole probably still does: lots of people live much less comfortable lives than I do, and lots of them work far more dangerous jobs than sitting in bed typing on laptops. Modern society has not obviated natural selection, and therefore a genetic defect that causes fearlessness is still likely to be less adaptive than the opposite, despite the lack of saber-toothed cats cruising around.
But without man-eating beasts to justify my anxieties, I am little more than a nervous wreck who hates getting on elevators and jet planes and avoids the expressway whenever possible.
Even if there are some things I should fear, I’m probably not targeting the right risks. In fact, human life is safer than it has ever been, but that has not stopped most people from compiling lists of dangers as long as their arms. This is the subject of Daniel Gardner’s 2009 book The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain.
His premise: that understanding the genesis of fear can help us understand ourselves better and live more rational lives. Whether it would save me from two hours sleep lost to imagining a wealth of grisly, ghost-producing murders…well, that is another thing.