Where Do Phobias Come From? Fear and Memory

In most cases, fears are made, not born

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Where do irrational fears come from? Professor Vishton explores the answer to this question.

Scarred women sitting in fetal position
Photo By Stanislaw Mikulski / Shutterstock

Origins of Phobias

When answering the question of where phobias come from, understand that fear responses are learned. In almost every case where someone has a fear, it isn’t that he or she was born with that fear. 

At some point in the person’s life, they had an experience—an unpleasant experience in a particular situation—that led to the later fear response when that situation is encountered or even remembered in the future.

We know a lot about how the brain implements learning and association of something with emotion. As we consider how those systems function together, we’ll then begin to understand how to unlearn a fear.

Types of Memory

If we want to talk about learning, it’s important to understand some characteristics of human memory. Human memory is often described in terms of two separate brain systems—short-term memory and long-term memory. 

When we perceive something in the environment around us, we first store it in our short-term memory. If someone told you a phone number, you can hold that number in your short-term memory. 

You can keep it there, but only if you continually refresh it by repeating it over and over to yourself. If something distracted you from that repeating task, the number will quickly fade from this temporary memory storage and be gone forever.

If you want to remember something for a long time, you have to transfer it from your short-term memory into your long-term memory. If you study that number long enough to memorize it—to remember it at a later time—that’s exactly what you’ve done. Once the information is in your long-term memory, it will stay there for a long time—maybe for good.

Suppose you want to recall the number at some later date. You do this by recalling the information, from your long-term memory, back to your short-term memory. For this reason, short-term memory is often called working memory.

Now, when you make a long-term memory, you encode the number, but a lot of other things seem to go along with it. The brain doesn’t just encode the number; it encodes the context in which the information was learned and that long-term memory was formed.

In fact, when you remember individual pieces of information—when you commit them to your long-term memory—those details often come to mind along with a lot of extra, related information. 

Memory and Fear

“When I remember learning this information about memory—that stuff I’m telling you now—a lot of other things come to mind,” Professor Vishton said. “I remember my professor—Allen Schneider. I remember what he looked like and how he sounded. I remember the classroom and the drab color of the auditorium seat.”

When we encode a long-term memory for some new piece of information—whether we want to or not—we capture much of the context in which that information was delivered. In addition to the external context of the room, the people, or the time of day, we also encode the context of our internal state at the time of an event. 

Most relevant to our discussion of fears here, our internal emotional state is a part of that context. 

“If I were terrified [for some reason] about being in that intro psychology lecture hall where I learned about memory, then my memories of Intro Psychology would be tinged with fear,” Professor Vishton said. “In order to recall information about short- and long-term memory, I would have to pull out some of the related information—not just about the professor’s face and the look of the room—but that remembered experience of terror.”

Thus, emotional state is part of our memory encoding and processing. From that perspective, phobias are a somewhat predictable result. If you experience some neutral stimulus and then experience a particular emotion, you will come to associate that stimulus with that particular emotion.

For example, when Professor Vishton was a young child, he went to the zoo with his parents and had a frightening experience where a llama tried to eat his hair. Years later, he returned to the same zoo where he once again saw a llama and once again felt fear. 

In this case, the stimulus was the llama and the emotion was terror. Thus, he would need to break that association in order to break the fear response and the phobias that arise from the response. 

Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.