As soon as there was life, there was danger: the deep history of survival behaviours and the shallower history of consciousness

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

It is often said that fear is a universal innate emotion that we humans have inherited from our mammalian ancestors by virtue of having inherited conserved features of their nervous systems. Contrary to this common sense-based scientific point of view, I have argued that what we have inherited from our mammalian ancestors, and they from their distal vertebrate ancestors, and they from their chordate ancestors, and so forth, is not a fear circuit. It is, instead, a defensive survival circuit that detects threats, and in response, initiates defensive survival behaviours and supporting physiological adjustments. Seen in this light, the defensive survival circuits of humans and other mammals can be conceptualized as manifestations of an ancient survival function-the ability to detect danger and respond to it-that may in fact predate animals and their nervous systems, and perhaps may go back to the beginning of life. Fear, on the other hand, from my perspective, is a product of cortical cognitive circuits. This conception is not just of academic interest. It also has practical implications, offering clues as to why efforts to treat problems related to fear and anxiety are not more effective, and what might make them better. This article is part of the theme issue 'Systems neuroscience through the lens of evolutionary theory'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)20210292
Number of pages1
JournalPhilosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences
Volume377
Issue number1844
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 14 2022

Keywords

  • consciousness
  • evolution
  • fear
  • survival circuits

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

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