“Fear of Spiders Can Develop Before Birth”

I must admit that when I saw the title of this article over at LiveScience, I was a bit skeptical and prematurely concluded the contents would be goofy.  The picture in my head was something like this: “scientists show fetuses ultrasonic images of spiders and then image their brain activity using fMRI — the amygdala lit up like a Christmas Tree!”

This just goes to show that first impressions are not everything.  Truly a great experiment:

Scientists put pregnant crickets into terrariums containing a wolf spider. The spiders’ fangs were covered with wax so the spiders could stalk but not kill the pregnant crickets. After the crickets laid their eggs, the researchers compared the behavior of the offspring with offspring whose mothers hadn’t been exposed to spiders.

What a horrific experience for these mommy crickets!  But more interesting is the effect it had on the offspring of the pregnant mothers who lived in terror of wolf spiders while carrying the baby crickets (“cricklets”? ) to term.

The embryonically conditioned cricklets were 113% more likely to show strong fear based behaviors after birth, including hiding, freezing, and avoidance.  Although the mechanisms involved in the transmission of fear from mother to developing baby cricket are unknown, the researchers reasonably speculate that the pregnant mothers generated hormones that affected embryonic development.

Is it possible that similar effects might occur in humans?  Making inferences about humans based on crickets has some obvious limitations, but it certainly seems reasonable to hypothesize similar effects.  These could even be tested.

How is this relevant to religion?  Many studies have shown a significant correlation between fear and religion.  Most of these studies involve psychological assessments that gauge the level of a person’s fear.  Some people are consistently fearful, and live in a state of high anxiety.  Such people are much more likely to score high on measures of religiosity.  How much of this is due to conditions in the womb?

One thing is for sure, the Plio-Pleistocene environments in which hominids evolved had their fair share of scary wolf spider analogues: huge felids, ursids, and canids all around!

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