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Watch and Learn, A Little About Fear

Monday, August 19, 2013
by John Goetz

Vicarious learning is the ability to “watch and learn”. People have the ability to experience events through imagined participation in the situation and to make note of the behaviors of those involved and learn from the resulting consequences, positive, negative or neutral. The interesting thing is we do not even have to see the event or interaction taking place. We can benefit from vicarious learning through an event that is “second hand”; a story we are told, a book we read, or a movie we watch. Social psychologists argue that vicarious learning is the primary way humans learn. The topic of human learning is huge so I am going to focus on a narrow slice and take a glimpse at un-defined fear. 

Vicariously, reading is an excellent opportunity to learn more about fear. In the science fiction best seller Dune by Frank Herbert, the reader comes across a scene in which the main character is tested with an event which is designed to produce intense fear. In order to pass this test the character recites a prayer of sorts, “The Litany Against Fear”.

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”

Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger. If we did not feel it, we would not know to protect ourselves from legitimate threats. Too often we fear situations that are in no way life or death and thus do not act when there is no reason. Traumas, bad experiences and even the thought of a bad experience can trigger a fear response that causes us to hold back and not more forward with our lives. Fear is a mind killer which causes our brains to narrow in focus and in the extreme, even shut down when we are faced with a truly dangerous situation. Emergency First Responders go through intense training and conditioning in order to prepare for this. Remember the scene in “Saving Private Ryan” in which the character “Upham” freezes on the stairwell. This is a normal experience, not cowardice.

The interesting thing is that perceived fear may have the same effects as fear based on real danger. These fears are characterized by their irrational nature. In fact anxiety and depression are characterized by common irrational thoughts and distortions, which often boil down to unrealistic fears. It is by facing our fears and experiencing the events that we have been avoiding that we discover that they are irrational and that they will disappear as we face them. As we take action and the fears dissipate like morning fog being burned off by the sun, we discover that we are capable, independent and resilient.

P.S. Read a book, any book. Learn vicariously!

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