Bear with me as I veer from our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this interesting science tidbit I first read about over at Slashdot. I was compelled to click through to the article which promised that MIT finds cure for fear. It begins “MIT biochemists have apparently discovered a molecular mechanisim behind fear and successfully cured it in mice, according to an article in the journal Nature Neuroscience.”
The article suggests that the drug could be used to treat persistent, debilitating fears–including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to some studies, as many as 1 in 8 soldiers returning from Iraq have reported PTSD symptoms, and the National Center for PTSD reports that about eight percent of the population will have PTSD symptoms at some point in their lives.
Certainly for people paralyzed by fear such a drug could transform their lives. And what about the average Joe or Joesephine, with their average fears? Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of change. Could this drug turn us all into fearless, bold, empowered beings?
On the surface, this sounds very promising. But there’s something about the casual use, misuse and potential abuse troubles me. At the root of my problem is this simple question: Is fear a bad thing?
A toddler learns to fear the flame from the gas range in the kitchen. It’s hot, and it can hurt if you touch it–so be careful (a parent’s euphemism for “fear this”). Fears are learned; some purposefully, others through accident or incident. Most fears are rooted in a self-preservation instinct, but as we grow, some no longer serve us. Yes, if I put my hand in the fire, it will burn me. No, public speaking will not turn me into a laughing stock or pariah (there are exceptions to every rule).
As adults, fear becomes our servant. Like the speedometer in my Mustang GT, I can monitor my “fear level” and decide to back off the accelerator (or not). Fear is a tool used to help us navigate life.
Imagine if I didn’t have a speedometer, or in fact, any perception of how fast I was actually travelling in my GT. Best case, I’d rack up a few more speeding tickets than I already have. Worst case? I’d be dead in a hellacious accident. Hmm… not an option I like.
My speedometer is a tool that helps me determine how fast to drive (usually a few miles just over the speed limit). My fears help protect me from risks that may or not be worth taking. Fear isn’t something that controls me — it’s just a guide.
I recognize that some people are gripped by fear. It controls them, rather than the other way around. I suspect that these are the people that the MIT scientists had in mind as they were testing this drug, and hope it can help them overcome what may be biophysiological causes of fear in those people. But I fear the potential abuse. Imagine the miltary removing all fear of combat from soldiers.
I laughed at one of the more poignant comments at Slashdot, in which the respondant writes “maybe this drug will help me overcome my fear of driving headlong into oncoming traffic.” Right.