15 Phreaky Phobias
Are phobias really irrational, or does the brain have a good reason for creating them?
by Brian Dunning
April 1, 2014
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What makes a phobia? It's perfectly rational to prefer not to perch dangerously on the edge of a perilous cliff, and it's only common sense to avoid the bite of a snake. But some of us take it a step further: experiencing acute symptoms of anxiety when exposed to certain threats, even when we're actually safe. We can be on a perfectly safe railed walkway that's high in the air, or the snake can be behind glass, but we still get the full physiological reaction. Fight or flight kicks in; anxiety, increased metabolism. Adrenalin and dopamine. Peripheral vision turns to tunnel vision and the mind becomes clear and focused on escaping the object of your phobia.
Trauma from past events is the main cause of most phobias, but some researchers also believe heredity may play a role (the eternal nature vs. nurture debate). The nurture component triggers a conditioned response to a stimulus. Here are phifteen phreaky phobias and what we know of them:
1. Arachnophobia: Fear of Spiders
Why is it that even a tiny toddler with no previous spider experience will recoil in terror from a tiny cute little animal that can't possibly pose any threat? Some have speculated that arachnophobia is an evolutionary adaptation; individuals who lacked the fear were spider-venomed to death more often enough that their genes eventually became expressed less often. Others have pointed out that the actual threat from spiders has never been substantial enough to produce such an effect.
Whatever the cause, arachnophobia is somewhat infamous as the poster child for exposure therapy, the most successful way to treat phobias through desensitization. What arachnophobe would not want to someday be thickly encrusted with Giant Huntsman spiders?
2. Pediophobia: Fear of Dolls
A theory to explain why this phobia exists has to do with the "uncanny valley" — that gap between our comfort with the images of real people, and our comfort with fictional characters sufficiently different from humans. In between, where things like corpses, prosthetic hands, wax figures, and lifelike animated humans are, they're almost-but-not-quite human and it creeps us out. A picture or drawing of a doll may seem harmless enough, but when a real doll is there in front of you in three dimensions and with physical synthetic eyes and hair and clothes, its evident realism drops it squarely into the uncanny valley. The uncanny valley is probably also largely responsible for:
3. Coulrophobia: Fear of Clowns
In addition to their uncanniness — appearing essentially as malformed humans — clowns are correlated with behavior that is equally uncanny. Whether they're hitting each other over the head with giant cartoon hammers or (perhaps even creepier) quietly handing you a balloon or a flower with an overly loving grin, they behave almost-but-not-quite like people: too different, and yet too similar, for comfort.
4. Emetophobia: Fear of Vomiting
Some people just don't do vomit: really, really don't do vomit. They can't think about it, watch it, or even imagine doing it themselves. The leading theory is that emetophobia is a reaction to a traumatic incident as a child, where vomiting may have been especially painful, humiliating, or associated with a strong memory such as a severe illness. As is the case with all phobias, a quick drive of the porcelain bus today wouldn't be all that bad; but the sufferer has been conditioned to be severely anxious at the very idea.
5. Ornithophobia: Fear of Birds
In many cases we can never pinpoint what event in a sufferer's life may have triggered their fear of birds, but the effect can be quite dramatic. Birds are everywhere outside; they can fly, they can come at us unexpectedly from any angle. This uncertainty and feeling of imminent attack is sufficient to trigger a state of acute stress response, the formal term for the fight or flight response. It triggers all the metabolic and biochemical reactions, making a life with too many outdoor excursions truly too stressful for an ornithophobe to manage.
6. Acrophobia: Fear of Heights
This one of the best known phobias demonstrates that they really shouldn't be called fears, they should be called anxieties. An acrophobe is not really afraid of being in a high place, per se, so much as he is uncomfortable with it. Many acrophobes are affected by a sense of falling that strikes not just when they're in a high spot, but possibly even when they're perfectly safe down on the ground looking up at a high spot. They're not necessarily afraid of falling; rather they experience anxiety when they are exposed to situation which suggests falling. Riding in a helicopter at 500 meters is fine, but climbing a 500 meter tower might trigger the symptoms. Falling is associated with one but not the other, even though there's little realistic possibility of falling in either situation.
7. Xerophobia: Fear of Dryness
Although often described as the fear of dry places like deserts, or dehydration, or discomfort from dry skin or cracked lips, xerophobia can also manifest as an irritation caused by sensations like fingernails on a chalkboard. It's an example of how highly non-specific a particular phobia can be. It's also an example of how many phobias can be triggered by one thing but not by another that's seemingly similar, something that often baffles non-sufferers. A xerophobe might be unable to tolerate holding a piece of dry sandpaper, but be perfectly comfortable holding wet sandpaper.
8. Porphyrophobia: Fear of the Color Purple
As silly as it sounds, porphyrophobia is just as real as phobias relating to any color, or even to a particular shape, material, texture, or surface. It just goes to show the amazing variety of phenomena that our brains might happen to associate with a negative experience that produces a conditioned response.
9. Apotemnophobia: Fear of Amputees
This unusual phobia is probably also a manifestation of the uncanny valley: seeing a person who is just barely different enough from what we're accustomed to seeing. It's often the case that in early life, a child was frightened by the unexpected sight of an amputee, causing sufficient psychological trauma that the acute stress response is triggered whenever that person sees any amputee, even as an adult. It's probably identical psychologically to:
10. Peladophobia: Fear of Bald People
Like an amputee, a little person, or a person with some obvious deformity, a bald person can sometimes present a surprise to an impressionable child who wasn't expecting it. Given a traumatic enough experience, it can indeed imprint deeply enough that a stress response is triggered later in life. It's actually quite rare for a sufferer of such a phobia to remember the initial event.
11. Nudophobia: Fear of Nudity
Nudophobes are not just afraid of being naked themselves; they become equally anxious when they see another person naked, or even the strong suggestion of nudity. It's theorized that some emotional trauma connected to the embarrassment of being naked is often the cause of nudophobia, so when the sufferer sees another person naked (even in movies or on television) it triggers the same response. The sufferer is rarely aware of why they are so uncomfortable with the idea of nudity; all they know is they really, really don't want to see it.
12. Neopharmaphobia: Fear of New Drugs
Although as scientific skeptics we often tend to rue the xenophobia that makes so many people suspicious of new pharmaceuticals, neopharmaphobia probably refers more often to personal experiences taking an unfamiliar drug that produced an unpleasant reaction. Nausea, which is a reasonably common side effect of some drugs, is an example of a side effect that can produce a profound psychological dislike. All it takes is one bad reaction for many people to develop an unintentional case of anxiety when offered any unfamiliar drug.
13. Kathisophobia: Fear of Sitting
Now how could anyone have a negative association with sitting down? Sitting is comfortable; and moreover, it's a practical necessity for most of us every day. And hidden in that fact is the likely answer. Kathisophobia is often the fear of remaining motionless, the need to fidget or keep moving. When seated, especially when needing to keep still, some people get the symptoms of extreme anxiety. In many cases this can be traced back to a long-term unpleasant job or duty that required sitting for long periods. Although the association is not necessarily conscious, it can still be dramatic: sitting still can resurrect of powerful feeling of not wanting to be there.
14. Hedonophobia: Fear of Pleasure
Psychiatrists can often have a field day with people who are hedonophobic; they are often people who have some deep-seated guilt associated with pleasure and now their subconscious will no longer allow them to experience it. Hedonophobes may be among the most treatable of phobics, since guilt is something that psychotherapy can often help a person eliminate. Of course nobody likes to be diagnosed with anything that's treatable with psychotherapy; it sounds too much like they're being told they're crazy or only imagining their condition. One thing all phobias have in common is that they're all in your head.
15. Chirophobia: Fear of Hands
Chirophobes can sometimes be identified by wearing mittens or keeping their hands in pockets or out of sight. They may have difficulty washing their hands or bringing them close to their face. They often prefer not to shake hands or touch others' hands. Some have theorized that these people may have had a traumatic hand injury which is called to mind at the sight of hands; others suggest that they might have been frightened by a large hand as a child or been slapped. For whatever reason, the traumatic association that resulted ended up being with hands, either their own or those of other people.
So the next time a friend exhibits a phobia of anything, no matter how strange, don't poke fun at them. They're not crazy, they're not being childish; they're simply reacting properly according to the way the brain protects itself from bad experiences. Phobias might be a weakness in practical terms in some cases, but in a larger sense, they're a marvelous example of the elegance and effectiveness of the evolved brain. If an experience is harmful, avoid similar circumstances in the future. The sense of anxiety is a powerfully effective Red Alert for the body.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "15 Phreaky Phobias." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
1 Apr 2014. Web.
29 Sep 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4408>
References & Further Reading
Campbell, J., Larzelere, M. "Behavioral interventions for office-based care: stress and anxiety disorders." FP Essentials. 1 Mar. 2014, Number 418: 30-37.
Creswell, C., Waite, P., Cooper, P. "Assessment and Management of Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents." Archives of Disease in Childhood. 17 Mar. 2014, Epub.
Cronin, D. Anxiety, Depression, and Phobias: How to Understand and Deal with Them. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1982.
Davey, G. Phobias: A Handbook of Theory, Research, and Treatment. Chichester: Wiley, 1997.
Elnazer, H., Baldwin, D. "Investigation of Cortisol Levels in Patients with Anxiety Disorders: A Structured Review." Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences. 22 Mar. 2014, Epub.
Milt, H. Phobias, the Ailments and the Treatments. New York: Public Affairs Committee, 1980.
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