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UBIAS chooses 'Fear' as the common theme for the member institutes in 2017

by Richard Meckien - published Jan 11, 2017 11:40 AM - - last modified Mar 01, 2020 08:41 PM
Rights: Original version in Portuguese by Mauro Bellesa.

Mosaico: Máscara de Fobos
Phobos, god of fear, according to a mosaic of the 4th century

The international network UBIAS (University-Based Institutes for Advanced Study) has chosen "Fear" as Topic of the Year for 2017. The institutes of advanced studies that are members of the network will hold events to discuss the political, sociological, psychosocial, neurological, biological and cultural aspects of fear.

The choice was made at a meeting of directors held in June at the University of Birmingham's IAS. This is the second time that UBIAS comes up with an annual common work topic. In 2016, the theme was "Media and Data Control."

According to the network's Steering Committee, the goal of adopting an annual theme of global importance is to stimulate the production of new ideas and to strengthen communication between the institutes. It is expected that each institute will hold events (single ones or in series) on their own or in partnership with other institutes.

The events can be public conferences, seminars, round tables or workshops, formatted in a way that respects the profile of each institute, the available expertise and the specific interests of the academic community in which it operates. In the case of single-initiative events, researchers from other institutes are expected to be invited to participate in the discussions.

A predominant phenomenon

The proposal for 'Fear' to become the 2017 topic of the year has been presented by the University of Freiburg's Institute for Advanced Study (FRIAS). In the justification, the institute's leadership argued that fear is becoming a prevalent phenomenon in today's world: "The language of fear stands out in the news and in everyday language. Even daily issues are approached through a narrative of fear: 'politics of fear','fear of crime','fear of terrorism','fear of the future'."

"Fear is not only associated with catastrophic threats such as terrorist attacks, global warming, AIDS and other potential pandemics." Most people also worry about the many 'silent fears' of everyday life."

In addition to being a social issue, fear is also a phenomenon of great biological and neurological interest, according to the authors of the proposal. "The response to fear (mostly fleeing, hiding or immobilizing) has played an important role in evolution since behavioral responses to fear serve survival."

This aspect highlights the importance of analyzing the biological processes that occur in a situation of fear: release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol in the bloodstream, acceleration of heart rate, dilation of the pupils and elevation of blood pressure. "In addition, the neurological phenomenon of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) shows that fear can leave lasting traits in the brain."

A recent increase in studies on emotions has been helping to revive interest in the subject, but the large presence and role of fear in contemporary society continues to be neglected by social sciences, according to the directors of the FRIAS.

Political use

They note that fear, because it is a strongly preconscious and powerful emotion, has a pre-rational way of delimiting and affecting thought. "The political and sociological implications of this neurological process can be seen in the way some politicians use people's fear of 'others' to regiment them."

The approved proposal suggests a number of issues to be addressed at events:

  • Are there societies that are more fearful than others?
  • Did the current concern for fear emerge from the age of anxiety of the 20th century?
  • What happens in the brain - from the biological and neurological point of view - of who is afraid?
  • When does fear make sense?
  • Why are some people more prone to fear and anxiety than others?
  • How do we specifically come to understand fear and how does its normalization today help our survival (if this is true)?
  • How did fear become such an important - perhaps even definitive - emotion of the present times?

Photo: archive of the British Museum