Startle them young

Are we born with a fear of spiders and snakes? Or do we learn it? New research suggests it’s the former.

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Indonesian schoolchildren learn how to handle snakes and reduce their fear of them © Bregas Dewanto / Anadolu Agency / Getty

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It would certainly make sense for people to be hard-wired with a wariness of dangerous animals. After all, by the time you have learned it, it might be too late.

Until now, there has been rather little evidence of how our reactions come about either way.

Now a new study has compared the response of six-month-old babies to images of both venomous and harmless organisms by measuring the dilation of their pupils.

According to Stefanie Hoehl at the University of Vienna it is, “an important signal for the activation of the noradrenergic system in the brain, which is responsible for stress reactions.” 

“When we showed pictures of a snake or a spider to the babies, instead of a flower or a fish of the same size and colour, they reacted with significantly bigger pupils,” Hoehl explains.

“Accordingly, even the youngest babies seem to be stressed by these groups.”

Read the full paper in Frontiers in Psychology.

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Read more wildlife news stories in BBC Wildlife Magazine