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Front Neurosci. 2015 Mar 18;9:55. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2015.00055. eCollection 2015.

The ecology of human fear: survival optimization and the nervous system.

Author information

1
Department of Psychology, Columbia University New York, NY, USA.
2
Medical Research Council-Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit Cambridge, UK.

Abstract

We propose a Survival Optimization System (SOS) to account for the strategies that humans and other animals use to defend against recurring and novel threats. The SOS attempts to merge ecological models that define a repertoire of contextually relevant threat induced survival behaviors with contemporary approaches to human affective science. We first propose that the goal of the nervous system is to reduce surprise and optimize actions by (i) predicting the sensory landscape by simulating possible encounters with threat and selecting the appropriate pre-encounter action and (ii) prevention strategies in which the organism manufactures safe environments. When a potential threat is encountered the (iii) threat orienting system is engaged to determine whether the organism ignores the stimulus or switches into a process of (iv) threat assessment, where the organism monitors the stimulus, weighs the threat value, predicts the actions of the threat, searches for safety, and guides behavioral actions crucial to directed escape. When under imminent attack, (v) defensive systems evoke fast reflexive indirect escape behaviors (i.e., fight or flight). This cascade of responses to threat of increasing magnitude are underwritten by an interconnected neural architecture that extends from cortical and hippocampal circuits, to attention, action and threat systems including the amygdala, striatum, and hard-wired defensive systems in the midbrain. The SOS also includes a modulatory feature consisting of cognitive appraisal systems that flexibly guide perception, risk and action. Moreover, personal and vicarious threat encounters fine-tune avoidance behaviors via model-based learning, with higher organisms bridging data to reduce face-to-face encounters with predators. Our model attempts to unify the divergent field of human affective science, proposing a highly integrated nervous system that has evolved to increase the organism's chances of survival.

KEYWORDS:

amygdala; anxiety; appraisal; defensive distance; fear; periaqueductal gray; survival optimization system

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