Terror is an expression of extreme fear.
Generally, intense perceptions cause emotional expressions to become exaggerated and more erratic in nature. Terror is a prime example of such varying extremes of expression. Typical characteristics, such as dramatically raised eyebrows with a corresponding gaping mouth, of the emotion do exist, yet at the upper limit of terror continuity breaks down, and some motions are expressed while others are not.
Initially, terror is reached through shock at a negative thing. When a person is shocked, the instinctual reactions are a preparation for another emotion. The eyebrows are raised, as the eyes open, removing them from obstructing vision and letting more light onto the pupils. The posture becomes more erect as the lungs take a deep breath, and the body is poised to move away if any danger is present. The breath is held to reduce sound from being created and to aid hearing anything that would threaten one’s health.
When the shocking event turns out to be negative, the expression morphs into terror or horror. Both have an element of extreme fear. These two emotional states are very similar in their expression. The eyes and mouth are opened instantly, in synchronicity, as wide as possible. The muscles become strained to their limit and are held twitching in this position. The forehead is corrugated from the extreme height of the eyebrows. The violent facial-muscle contractions pull the eyelids tight against their sockets – exposing white eyeballs.1 The mouth gapes open to aid the lungs expanding instantaneously to maximum capacity. Then without delay the muscles that surround the lungs lock themselves tight to allow no air to pass the lips, so aiding hearing and reducing noise. The upper body is erected due to the lungs being fully inflated with the taut muscles that surround the lungs clinging solidly to the rib cage.
At this stage the heart’s palpitations accelerate to upper limits in a fraction of a second. The heart is wildly pumping blood around the circulatory system as some blood vessels shut (e.g. the digestive tract, kidneys) and other vessels open as much as they can to deliver blood to regions such as the heart, lungs and leg muscles. The exertion may be so great at this point that the heart fails. Otherwise, the blood flow of the skin, face and upper regions is redirected by closing capillaries and sent to the legs as they are prepared to run. This makes the skin on the hands and face cold and pale looking. The skin is cold, yet the body often produces sweat – to reduce the body’s temperature – in expectation of the heat produced from the exertion of running away. This is referred to as cold sweat.
The person is typically frozen on the spot with the features described above still strained in every way. The voice might fail temporarily while the eyes become fixed on the object of terror. As if lightening the load for an oncoming escape, the sphincter muscle may relax and the contents of the intestines may breach the body. The hair stands erect, all over the skin, from alertly shivering muscles that can cause limbs to tremble; these are the hallmark expressions of terror.
The effects of ongoing fear from terrifying experiences should not be underestimated. Memories last a lifetime, and this is an extremely serious matter for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. As narratives to perceptions imbue people with a sense of control and security, the memories need to be addressed and resolved in some way. Sadly, at present there is not sufficient knowledge to treat satisfactorily such memories and their associated effects on a person’s life. Unresolved memories can cause people to live with permanent sadness, anxiety and stress that can seem ingrained in their heads.
The over activation of the right amygdala and its many interconnected neighbouring systems is highly associated with heightened states of alertness and anxiety. The processes involved in memory are extremely complex, however, and beyond full understanding at present. Post-traumatic stress disorder can affect people for decades after the initial trauma, and because it impairs people’s ability to function socially, it causes them to develop habitual evasive behaviours.
Devastating memories are relived on a conscious and unconscious level. The memories seem vivid and powerful, yet they are difficult to describe. Behaviours are created that last long after the initial exposure that induced the terror. Sufferers report walking around whilst feeling the memory and associated fear burning a hole in their heads, and being continually stressed and unable to relax. This is, to a significant degree, most probably due to the sensation of the amygdalae which become enlarged or inflamed when over activated.2
There are neuro-biological tolls to many of the connections throughout the brain that are interconnected to the amygdalae, for they are also constantly activated without rest. Constantly experiencing negative emotions and having defensive responses turned on and turned off – repeatedly and inappropriately – makes the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder a serious threat to long-term health (see Stress).3
The problems of being made to feel terror in this modern civilised world are many. It is possible that terror triggers responses that are primal in nature. Responses that are more appropriate to an age long gone, yet stay with people throughout their lives. Although it was possible in the hunter-gatherer era for humans to live as long as they do today, people’s lives are on average much longer than those in which instincts were originally applied. When considering that at a surface level human instincts developed as a hunter-gatherer species (over the past two million years with an average life expectancy of twenty to thirty-seven years of age), is human genetic code going to provide a perfectly accurate instinctual response to modern problems? Humans have doubled average life expectancy from forty, to eighty, within the last five hundred years, and it’s increasing year on year.
Is it surprising that people react to extremely intense stimuli with instincts that have served them for hundreds-of-thousands of years and are more relevant to a different age? Maybe living in a continuously alerted state was not so unusual two-hundred-thousand years ago. Perhaps the volume of a single traumatic memory would have been drowned out from a hundred other alarming things?
People can remain on high alert for decades after a terrifying event due to the vivid nature of their memory and its fidelity to survey for similar situations. In sudden and extremely threatening circumstances, people are instinctively induced to process the information they record to memory in a different way than they would do normally.
The term weapon focus refers to this perceptual processing that forcefully redirects attention in milliseconds onto the source of the threat whilst excluding other information from being processed. People’s subsequent memories are then overwhelmingly biassed towards intensely threatening objects.
A clear demonstration of this weapon focus was provided by an experimental study that showed participants a videotape of a staged bank robbery. For half of the participants, towards the end of the violent crime, the escaping robbers shoot a small boy in the face. The other half of the participants watch the same robbery with only one difference – there was no shooting of a boy. Those who watched the gunshot showed impaired memory of events immediately preceding the graphic violence, yet their memory preserved vivid recall of the shot itself. Eye-tracking instinctively follows the intensity of perceived events. The more extreme a perception, the less consistent memory becomes around it – preceding and succeeding the apex of intensity.4
People innately orientate their behaviour towards the intensity of their perception. This automatic change in psychological, neuro-biological and physical disposition also prepares people in the same way for anticipated events. The instinctive orientation is strongest at the time people perceive an event is going to happen. What is astonishing is that the intensity of a perceived event outranks the probability of its happening.5
This can be viewed as an evolutionary adaptation that chooses biological preparedness over the potential stress of an inaccurately perceived threat. Because intense events would have related to very serious things in early human evolution, it would have been most important and a considerable advantage to have dispositions ready to encounter threats as and when they happened.
More intensity equals less conscious control. Automatic behaviour is significantly related to how intensely affected people become. The closer an emotion’s intensity gets towards its limits, the more the emotion progressively assumes control over behaviour, so the more likely it becomes that people act from instinct.6
This has many advantages in a sudden and intensely threatening scenario as within milliseconds people are preparing to use evolutionary strategies to avoid harm. Nevertheless, this means that perceptions of extremely intense anticipated events are the most difficult to reason with in terms of their probability, for people have less conscious control over their behaviour as the anticipated time draws closer. The more intense an emotion becomes, the more instincts orientate behaviour. This means people can intellectually want to act in one way and find themselves behaving in an unwanted and radically different way.
Violent events can shock psychological networks deeply. They can brand an intense impression into implicit-memory that’s most difficult to alter. These memories are then referred to for a long time after on a conscious and unconscious level. Memories are used to prime responses to present events that resemble past experiences, and this happens at a pre-semantic (subconscious) level. Evidence from neuro-imaging studies supports this pre-semantic detection of threats.7 People do not have to recognise consciously a similar event for the responses to be engaged, for their subconscious is continually scanning for patterns and associating them with memories. If the search finds a match, it engages the appropriate bodily disposition. So people react to threats even if they have no meaning associated with the cause of their reaction.
Memories of intense events compel people’s behaviour. Instinctively people may feel as though they need to avoid places or persons, but their day-to-day life dictates they visit those places and persons. A conflict is created on a viscerally deep level. The subconscious creates feelings of dread that the conscious mind repeatedly stumbles into without understanding. Pervasive anxiety begins. The cost of being in such a conflicted situation can be neuro-biological stress that’s typically felt as lethargy, for it’s exhausting.
Memory is used to gauge the validity of possible threats. If anything resembles a violent memory, the subconscious throws biological responses to extreme danger into action. Heart rate increases, blood vessels expand and the lungs inflate. The brain shuts down unnecessary thinking to prime the body for physical exertion. The senses are heightened whilst the mind becomes suspicious and alert. Due to the intensity of the experience that’s etched into memory, such changes can happen to people if they simply imagine an event that resembles the original terrifying experience. People can be transported from briefly hearing or seeing something that reminds them of a memory to finding themselves forced into a stricken state of emergency. People experience fight-or-flight instincts that are massively disproportionate to the situation they are really in, and due to the automatic reactions to intense perceptions, people can be at the mercy of inappropriately activated instincts.
Terrifying events rarely are experienced and then dismissed because they remain in memory to evaluate ongoing events. Once terrible experiences are in memory, they are real possibilities. They cannot be ignored. They can only be updated with the use of narrative. The fact that autonomic responses prepare for the intensity of a perceived event – even an imaginary one – rather than its probability is difficult for most people to grasp. The lack of understanding around this concept means that experiencing such automatic fight-or-flight responses can be very worrying. People can feel pathetic, and find it difficult to come to terms with their weird behaviour, yet the responses are explainable. Consciously adding a narrative to the original experience helps the unconscious to distinguish if a present event is actually similar.
People are generally unaware of how deeply moved they become by intense perceptions. Whether they are negative or positive, the intense perceptions that humans experience are responsible for ordering their lives. Humans instinctively orientate their behaviour according to their hopes and terrors. Unconsciously, they react to intensity. Unwittingly, viscerally and neuro-biologically, interests and disinclinations are governed by the extremes of perception, for humans possess an innate ability that prepares them physically for the temporal ebb and flow of things.
Latin. Terrorem = great fear.
1. Extreme fear.
2. The use of such fear to intimidate people.