Why Fear is not a Reaction to Threat; Emotion, Language & Life Events

Threatening, Fear or Anxiety; they are often “tumbled-dried” by academics and citizens to suggests emotion to make an assessment or/and a judgment. The truth is, they are different.

Our brains; any brain for that matter, don’t simply react because the individual is threatened, fearful, anxious, frightened, enraged, happy and the likes. A brain predicts.

WHAT??? You think, if you made it reading this far.

The fact is that its not just one circuit, leading to a physical adjustment, a face or and posture/ behaviour- reacting to stimuli. Different brain regions involved are predicting and simulating every moment sensory information proceeds via the senses to the brain. The brain anticipates what each information may be, what it may lead to, compares it to using past experiences and in turn, predicts what needs to happen for the brain to stay save and survive.
We dont drive cars waiting for emotion to then react, our brains predict every possible outcome everytime we drive; prediction error leads to adjustment hopefully early enough before an accident occurs.
A tennis player doesn’t wait to react to seeing the ball coming over the net, he would physically not be fast enough to hit the ball; the tennis players brain predicts where the ball will be at any certain time, to hit it with precision, to hopefully get the points and eventually the match; if he outwitts the other players predictions.
Prediction errors lead to new predictions, this act has a fancy name: Learning.
A dog does not wait to see the rabbit to react with different prey-drive patterns. Its brain actively predicts the rabbits location by sensory information. And the rabbit in turn doesn’t just react to the dog hunting it; its brain predicts which defensive action may keep it save. It may use various actions to get away not just hiding or freezing or running.
The rabbit is not simply reacting in fear.
Its predicting behaviour to stay alive and by default reestablishing positive feelings of savety, if it outwitts the dog by prediction and actions. In either case ones organisms affect is gonna be pleasantly affected and the others… well you get my point.

These “basic feelings” are called “Core Affect” by scientists.
Feelings that have range between pleasant and unpleasant to aroused and calm/sleepy but they are not emotions.
Affect is part of interoception, consiously (by that i mean we are aware of the feelings) sending information to the brain about the state of our bodies feelings (of pleasant – unpleasant – aroused – calm), just as the organs, muscles, tissues, joints etc send information but without us consciously noticing it most of the time; until that is…there is an issue.
There are also the sensory information of balance/orientation (vestibular system- equillibroception) and movement by muscles and joints in relation to where our body is in the world (proprioception)

All these systems are important in anything we do. Take something as simple as standing up. To us it may feel as though we are just standing up but our brain has to simulate what the needs are to do so. For example: raising blood pressure slighlty so we wont faint, balance and orienting where we are. Are we getting up from a chair or laying down on a bed or floor? And of course we need our muscles, bones, joints, ligaments etc to now communicate to get us upright from whatever point we are.

Sit down, close your eyes and have a think about just getting up again.
Now think about how much energy is used by a dogs system everytime we command it to do something and what effect that will have on the dogs core affect.

Defensive meassures are no different; the brain simulates, and systems then act on it right down to every movement we make to get away, freeze or fight the threat. It is then when affect starts setting in and our brain may make an assessment of the predicament we find ourself in. That, some of us humans may call Fear. Some use a totally different language to communicate what just occured. Some may even have a different category for it. Like “Gförlich” (unsafe in Swiss). Another may say they were “spooked” rather then frightened and so on. In turn even our emotional assessments dont appear the same in language to form individual brain states. What is Fear to you or “Gförlich” to me and “Spooked” to another results in differences of how brain networks interact with eachother. To an animal, that will feel even different in comparison.
Us humans also use spoken language every day to explain our state of being. Imagine explaining your state of being in another country where no one speaks English. Will they understand what you experience?
Close your eyes and imagine that.
Now that may just be how it is for our animal.
Fundamentally, our problem is not that we generally dont care about animals; its that we go about understanding them , looking at one essence at a time. We cluster symptoms and behaviours together and predict by individual perception. Some individuals are more influencial so we follow their expressions and label categories as they do. What’s playful to some is dominance to others. A posture may be submitting to some and to others a fearful dog and to others again a sign of pain. Some go further and claim single brain circuits for specific emotional states.

The amygdala is not the fear circuit or the sole circuit for emotion events. It has many jobs, one of them is to “alarm” to novel things. So if you are still reading, your amygdala has signaled that this text may be important and extra expenditure has now been made available for you to read this. Leading for some of your brains to conclude this to be utter nonsense and not deserving of any more gloucose and oxygen, while to others, who grasped the predictive nature of the brain, will share a moment of awe with me and spend much more energy, wanting to learn more about it. Two very different perceptions, leading to different brain states, different physical and behavioural actions.

There are perceptions and statements about Fear, Fear Response, Fear Conditioning etc which are just foreign to me.
Through the first earthquake in the early hours of the 4th September 2010, I awoke simply to a very loud rumbling. Instantly my brain predicted what it may be; starting with the picture of a train. Realizing there are no train lines near, my brain created a picture of a plain engine to which a simulation was run that showed my house flattened by a plain with me in it and created movement (running outside) in the pitch dark. Supposedly humans dont see well in the dark which didnt matter to my brain it created outlines of objects and where they may be.(fig1)
As the ground started moving, while the action stayed the same, it was imminently clear that it was an earthquake rather then an airplane. Not because I had ever experienced a large earthquake before, but because my brain used past theoretical experience to predict what I was experiencing at present. All this happened in split seconds, effortlessly, automatically without any emotion at all. No Fear.
However, I can pinpoint the exact moment when emotion was created in each large earthquake event, and it was always after action had gotten me to a point where I could not move further or at a point of relative savety, in the face great uncertainty. Interestingly, in the 4th September 2010 event my first emotional event was that of euphoria after having established there was nothing wrong with my balance, rather, that it was the ground moving so excessively!!
In one event I was in my restaurant, in a brick building. A large jolt reminded us of the tumult under our feet and again i moved quite efficiently to the front door and halted just as the ground movements stopped. Then I felt scared and reliefed at the same time, as I realized that running out of a brick building in an earthquake is a dumb idea!
While in one of the most distructive events we had in Canterbury, the 22nd Feburary 2011 earthquake, my brain had to simulate many different adjustments to get to the front door let alone turning the doorknob to get out of the house which my brain clearly predicted as “pancakeing”. It was like being on a trampoline, having gotten out of rhythm and being jolted about uncontrollably. Only once I got out of my home I renembered I had my parents in the back of the house, in the kitchen, under the ceiling where the concrete water tank sat. And immediately I felt emotions such as deep despair and sadness with the thought of, how I was going to tell my sisters that our parents had died. This was followed by euphoria and great happyness when my parents appeared from the intact houses’ back door with my father joking in Swiss: “That was a little bit of a rumble”. And ended with guilt of having totally forgotten about having a dog! I loved Sam to bits and she lived with me to a healthy 16 1/2 years until 2016. What I learnt was that my survival surpasses anyone elses needs in these acute events. Knowing that, I’m always close to an exit knowing I might push others aside to survive. Not a nice thing to learn about one self, that I’m helpful to others when I’m save but no hero in an immediate event itself.
For parents it was a different experience. Those who shared their accounts with me all stated that nothing mattered until they had assured their childrens safety, which then resulted in their emotional events.

In researching into this field of emotion to understand me and my dogs better, I had scientists tell me that my experiences where just illusions and that really “Fear” was the cause for my responses to ensure survival; just to hold their beliefs.
I have to respectfully disagree. Sometimes a life event teaches us something profoundly different then staring at mice and rats all day or placing electrodes in specific parts of the brain to construct conclusions about behaviours, which where not dicovered but decided meaning upon. There are scientists, who had implemented the word “Fear” in unfortunate context, and now, very openly ask to redifine scietific language so the public stop to confuse meanings. Joseph DeLoux suggests to use words like “Threat” and/or Defense instead of “Fear” to explain innate behaviours.

This doesnt mean that we go back to the dark ages of behaviourism when mental states were excluded and all was explained by stimuli-response meassurments. We can be quite certain that animals feel affect and may well have the brain structures to construct profound emotions. As Lisa Feldman Barrett put is: “Ask better questions. Ask HOW rather then WHERE?”
What emotions may a dog construct with its refined nose, his sharp hearing, somewhat blurred short sight and less colouful vision sensitive to movements, limited taste, sensitive touch and individual interoception guided by his or her own past experiences?
Now that is an interesting question needing an answer!




“Theory of Constructed Emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorizations” Lisa Feldman Barrett; 2017

“Core affect, Prototypical Emotional Episodes, and other things called Emotion: Dissecting the Elephant” J. Russell; L. Feldman Barrett 1999

“The Amygdala is NOT the Brain’s Fear Center” Joseph LeDoux; 2015