Friday, June 29, 2007

It's Ok, You're Neurotic For The Rest Of Us

Many people suffer from an irrational phobia, be it snakes, public speaking, or such. Typical explanations point to a traumatic event; explanations on a higher level speak of evolutionary reasons: It was beneficial for our ancestors, supposedly, to be easily phobic of snakes.

All of which is fine and good, but doesn't explain the severity of the response. To be wary of snakes does make perfect sense; to be unable to function in the presence of one doesn't. One possible reason is that people who suffer from such crippling phobias are 'malfunctions' of biology; they are just the fringe cases, not worthy of further explanation.

Here is an alternative view. Perhaps people have severe phobias not for their own benefit, but to benefit others. Consider, as an analogy, the prairie dog: When a single prairie dog spots a predator, it sounds the alarm, and all the others scurry for the safety of their borrows. Notice that the response of the initial prairie dog was beyond the immediate needs of the animal; it didn't just go and hide, it alerted the others as well.

Are phobias similar? Suppose that, in a community of people, one has a phobia of snakes. Whenever that person sees a snake, their response is exaggerated, out of proportion - just what is needed to call attention to the danger. Seeing the entire community as a whole, the phobic person is simply the designated lookout for a particular threat.

In this perspective, phobias seem irrational and unnecessary only because we (or many of us) live in individualistic cultures. Yes, a phobia is senseless for the individual. But the phobia may also, in part, serve a purpose - for others.