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January 18, 2004 Being timid can kill you. Really.

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I came an interesting item this week.  In Slate Magazine Christine Kenneally reviewed an odd new study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. 


Her article Fear and Loathing: A new study shows that being risk-averse may shorten your life will certainly get you thinking.


It seems caution can actually kill you.  Really?


Sonia Cavigelli and Martha McClintock of the Department of Psychology and Institute for Mind and Biology at the University of Chicago found, in a recent experiment that individuals who fear novelty - a condition scientists have named "neophobia" - are likelier to die at an earlier age than those who are unafraid of change.  According to Cavigelli this is the first time a study has demonstrated that an emotional trait apparent in infancy can shorten life span.  Quite curious.


Here's the experiment:


For this research, Cavigelli and McClintock followed the lives and fortunes of pairs of rat brothers for several years.  The scientists chose their subjects by first establishing which of the rats were neophobic.   To do this, they placed the young rats inside a bowl in a small room. Objects the rats hadn't seen before - a rock, a metal box, a plastic tunnel - were placed in each corner of the room.  The rats the scientists deemed neophobic either stayed hunkered down in the bowl or left it only hesitantly, with hunched backs, stilted walks, and bristling fur.  The rats who left the bowl quickly to explore the room and the various unfamiliar objects were dubbed neophilic.


After their experience in the testing room, the neophobic rats were shown to have elevated levels of corticoid - a hormone typically secreted as part of the flight-or-fight response.  Cavigelli and McClintock tested the rats repeatedly over the course of their lives and found that neophobic rats continued to have elevated corticoid levels not only in response to their frightening experience, but at other random moments throughout their lives.




These hormones - such as adrenaline and cortisol (the human equivalent of the rats' corticoid) - that accompany fear spur the heart to beat faster, cause breathing to increase, and generally put an organism on high alert so that it can react swiftly to get out of danger.  But these stress hormones also strain the body.  Too much of them can lead to a compromised immune system, the loss of brain cells, and hardening of the arteries; they can also negatively affect other important body functions such as sleep. 


In short - being afraid of things causes biological changes that can kill you earlier then normal.  Being afraid of new things is really, really bad for you.


Because the experiment was genetically controlled - the rats were 'bothers" - Cavigelli and McClintock suggest that neophobic and neophilic tendencies are not at all genetically determined.  The emotional traits may instead come from early experiences, such as the 'social roles rats play in their litter, and the different ways that their mothers groomed them."


Well, that has implications.  But are we like these rats?


A number of parallels exist between humans and their rat surrogates.  Neophobia shows up in human infants as early as 14 months of age, and like the rats, fearful children have a faster and stronger hormonal response than children who are not afraid of new situations.  It's also been shown that if you are neophobic at a young age, you tend to remain that way throughout childhood.  Cavigelli suggests, however, that individuals may develop strategies to avoid the negative effects of neophobia.  "If you are a neophobic-type person, you might avoid any novel situations thereby minimizing that stress," she says.  Staying away from stressful situations could be a form of "self-medication."


Now wait a second!  There are those of us who like to look before we leap, and that may be a useful trait to keep one alive.  But it seems since "new stuff" and stress are unavoidable, or pretty much unavoidable, those of us who are tentative may die younger, from the stress hormones we pump out while worrying.  We lose.


We should be more like the "neophiles" - the fearless explorers - but probably cannot be.


But hold on.  Kenneally comments that the experiment has a key flaw:


Although it looks like the neophiles have an unfair advantage, they may not have it as good as it seems.  In the experiment, Cavigelli and McClintock played God by controlling the environment of their subjects and essentially creating a safe universe where being brave didn't get you into trouble.  But real life, with its car accidents, plane crashes, and human predators does not always reward the fearless. 


Ah, I see.  Unlike the real world, in the experiment being unafraid of the new, being fearless, had no real consequences.  Sure, the frighten rats had a shorter lifespan from all the hormonal changes caused by their fearfulness, but the brave rats learned there were no consequences to exploring the new.  The human experimenters made sure they were safe.


In the real world of humans there often are really bad consequences for trying new stuff, from bungee jumping to the latest designer drug.  Of course, if you believe there is a benign, watchful God making sure you don't ever get hurt, the theological equivalent of the rats' Cavigelli and McClintock, then see what happens if you stick your hand in the lion's mouth.  God will make it safe for you.


Some of us are more careful.  No faith, I guess.