Friday, February 29, 2008

Who's afraid of snakes?

Chances are that if you're reading this blog, the answer is: not you. But we all know how many people out there have a snake phobia. Have you ever wondered how much of this is ingrained and how much is learned?

A study I read about today supposedly shows that the fear of snakes (and spiders) is "hard-wired", meaning NOT learned, in humans. Now, I firmly believe that this is true in some animals, and am reminded of this every time my big bad 85-lb German Sherpherd, who has never had a traumatic run-in with a snake, runs cowering into the other room when I remove a shed skin from one of the snake cages. But in humans? This study, which unfortunately will not be published until next month so I can only rely on the media, supposedly shows that snake phobia is hard-wired because pre-schoolers and adults alike notice snakes in a montage of other animals much more quickly. Without having read the paper, and shaped by my own experiences, I am not inclined to believe this science is rigorous in theory or practice. By the way, if anyone thinks that pre-schoolers are too young to have already "learned" to fear snakes from TV, listening to their parents, etc., think again. A recent study of 3-5 year olds found that they thought food tasted better if it came in a McDonald's wrapper. I'd say that's pretty good evidence that pre-schoolers have already begun to form opinions about things based on their experience (and advertising!).

Until I am able to read the paper myself, I will share with you why I believe that the fear if snakes is mainly LEARNED in humans. Put plainly, little kids like snakes. No, they LOVE snakes. I had the priviledge of visiting Georgia Brown Elementary School in Paso Robles this week to teach second graders about snakes.

[I had some photos but removed them due to privacy issues- suffice it to say the kids were thrilled and LOVED those snakes!]
Most adults hate snakes. I believe that this is largely a learned behavior, from watching stupid movies like Anaconda and Snakes on a Plane. Even the nature channels on TV, especially Discover Channel, hype up the snake shows to the point where they misrepresent snakes as being aggressive when in reality they're only trying to defend themselves.

Anyway, thanks to Mrs. Knowlton at Georgia Brown for inviting me to hang out with snakes and second graders, my favorite kind of people (that includes the snakes!).


Anonymous said...

awesome awesome post! i love you.
let's not forget bluster's little gift when you cuddled him under your shirt before going "out." the down-side to snake handling. :)

i agree whole-heartedly (suprised?). the talk i gave in elkins to 2nd graders was one of the coolest things i did in grad school. a young (VERY timid) girl with coke-bottle glasses asked if she could hold the corn snake. i excitedly obliged. her face lit up like nothing i've witnessed to date.

cool experience. yay for dr. stoopid! :)
~da rev

Laini Taylor said...

Great pictures! I agree, preschoolers have so much media bombarded at them, and have fully assimilated a lot of their parents' prejudices by that age. Sounds like a stupid study, in my non-scientific opinion. Spiders, now, may have a built-in revulsion factor, because they're just CREEPY -- and I'm no spider-hater, but I can see that, more than with snakes.

Frida said...

And here is my anedoctal "evidence"

Me aged 3 years old, living with my parents in Papua New Guinea, called out in delight to my mother to come see something on the front porch.

My mother, aged 38, horrified to discover that I am delighted by a large boa constrictor making its way across the porch.

No "natural revulsion" from me at 3 yrs.

Given that the snake actually was potentially very dangerous (it was a biggy) my Mum probably didn't do me too much harm when she made it clear that it was "off-limits" and I should stay away from Boa Constrictors.

But other snakes - I don't find them inherently creepy at all. Moths, on the other hand... ew

Alex S said...

I grew up thinking they were so dangerous, that they just longed to scoop themselves up and wrap themselves around my tiny, fragile neck, and squeeze the bajeesus out of me until I died. The snizzle snazzle part of them makes me quasy a little, but I know so little about them and you shed a whole different, contagious light and enthusiasm about them that makes me think, "You know what? Maybe snakes aren't just to fear and to eat." I've never really eaten a snake. I would like to eat a gigantic snake made out of chocolate though.

She sure is strange! said...

I'm the dissenter I guess. As a preschooler I had to get a weekly allergy shot so as a "reward" my mom would take me to the pet store. The only animals I'd have anything to do with were the ducks and the snakes. I was not afraid of them at all, in fact, I loved them! Throughout my life I've been the one who actively looked for snakes whenever I've been outside and had no qualms about capturing them. I've taught my children how to handle them properly and we've kept several species for observation(and rehab). My 14-year-old son has even caught water moccasins for us to check out and I've caught three copperheads in my life. I am not afraid of snakes.

A few years ago my husband and I were walking in a pasture behind a creek at my parents' place in western North Carolina. I was ahead of him and stumbled across a very large black rat snake. It was about 2 feet from me. Immediately, I began backing up, fast, almost running my husband down. It was pure instinct, I couldn't even vocalize what was wrong until I was several feet from the snake, then I was able to point it out to my husband. What I felt wasn't fear, in fact I'm pretty sure I wasn't "feeling" at all, just reacting. And that's why I think that sort of fear is hardwired.

My brother, just 2 years younger, is terrified of snakes. He had a bad encounter when he was about 4 or 5 years old. We were throwing rocks in a pond and when he reached for a rock he came up with the head of a bull snake. It huffed at him and that was that. He came across lots of rattlesnakes on his AP hike last year and several bears. He did much better with the bears, even the sow who charged him. Now, OTOH, I have an irrational fear of bears...


Viagra Online said...

My phobia doesn't exactly point at snakes or spiders, but cockroaches. If I see a bug like that in my bedroom in the middle of the night I don't go to bed until I had got rid of it.

Moreninha76 said...

Maybe humans do have a fear of snake hardwired into the brain because our ancestors in Africa needed to avoid get bitten by deadly venomous snakes like the Black mamba

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