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  • Writer's pictureWendy Smith

Are you born with 2 fears?

Do we really have a fear of falling and loud noises from birth? This is something I was taught a long time ago and a concept that I have been questioning quite deeply recently. My personal view is that this is untrue. The reason why, well I have many reasons why I disagree with this hypothesis.

The first is that I have experienced many parents playing with their children, throwing them in the air and catching them and the children giggle and laugh, they rarely cry or look scared.

The second reason is one which I feel comes from common sense exploration, if babies had a fear of falling, how would they ever learn to walk? We would become a nation of crawlers!

The third reason is through personal experience, my sister and I were told about a fun game we were playing at the age of about 3 or 4, this was during a holiday which involved a visit to Beachy- Head.

Apparently we were playing right on the edge of the cliff pretending to push each other off, quite happily dangling each other over the edge of the cliff without a care in the world until dad (on his stomach) dragged us away

from the edge and gave us a good telling off. This did not install a fear of falling, this installed a fear of getting on the wrong side of dad.

The fourth reason I have to disagree is that I spent my whole childhood climbing trees. There was a 30 ft yew tree next to the pub I grew up in. I used to climb to the top and swing on the branches, hanging upside down from my legs bent over the branches. I never once experienced any fear of falling.

So, where does this hypothesis come from?

This syndrome was first mentioned in 1982 by Murphy and Isaacs, who noticed that after a fall, ambulatory persons developed intense fear and walking disorders. Fear of falling has been identified as one of the key symptoms of this syndrome.

Studies done by psychologists Eleanor J. Gibson and Richard D. Walk have further explained the nature of this fear. One of their more famous studies is the “visual cliff”. Below is their description of the cliff: …a board laid across a large sheet of heavy glass which is supported a foot or more above the floor. On one side of the board

a sheet of patterned material is placed flush against the undersurface of the glass, giving the glass the appearance as well as the substance of solidity. On the other side a sheet of the same material is laid upon the floor; this side of the board thus becomes the visual cliff.

Thirty-six infants were tested in their experiments, ranging from six to fourteen months. Gibson and Walk found that when placed on the board, 27 of the infants would crawl on the shallow side when called by their mothers; only three ventured off the “edge” of the cliff. Many infants would crawl away from their mothers who were calling from the deep end, and some would cry because they couldn’t reach their mothers without crossing an apparent chasm. Some would pat the glass on the deep end, but even with this assurance would not crawl on the glass. These results, although unable to prove that this fear is innate, indicate that most human infants have well developed depth perception and are able to make the connection between depth and the danger that accompanies falling.

My questions based on the above experiment of 36 infants are;

What was the difference between the ones that crawled off the ‘edge’ to those who would not? Had they already experienced parental installed fear around falling? Meaning, had they wandered close to danger at some point and had a parent grab them out of fear? Were their parents afraid of high places, had vertigo or negative experiences around falling? Were the children just reacting to a strange place and an odd request from their parents?

Considering that it states the psychologists were unable to prove innate fear, how did this become a mainstream teaching without any hard evidence?

What we do have is documented and video evidence of a trial (unethical I might add) performed by Dr John Watkins in 1920. Little Albert was purposefully subjected to sharp loud noises when a fluffy animal was near, this resulted in the installation of phobias towards all furry fluffy animals, even fur coats. So we know that fear can be installed and I am still not convinced by the evidence I am tracking that we are born with any.

When it comes to loud noises, everyone I know jumps (has a nervous system reaction) when loud noise goes off near them, however when I have questioned them not one has said they are fearful, the comments are normally “it just made me jump”.

My conclusion to all of this is to make your own conclusions, research as much as you can to validate your gut feeling and then run with that. To blindly teach the hypothesis of others with no question can only lead to a dumbed down society who blindly follow others like lemmings off a cliff (another myth).


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