Vision and Fear

Of all emotions fear is much more directly connected to our senses vision, hearing, tactility and smelling than any other emotion. What we see can makes us angry, happy, ashamed etc but this is mainly learned, very differentiated and usually includes judgement and decisions whereas the fear response is immediate and often a reflex. And fear changes very much how we see. Happiness, anger, shame… do not.
Before I continue I want to clarify that fear is not a “bad” or harmful emotion but a very necessary part of being alive. It is what keeps us alive. Karla McLaren has an excellent article about fear (and about other emotions).

Fear and Contents of Vision

With the possible exception of a nuclear bomb the most dangerous thing we might encounter is a rabid dog or wolf. Chances to survive are very close to zero. Even a minor scratch leads to rabies and rabies is always fatal, even today.
Each and any human reacts with massive fear when we see an agitated dog or wolf with foam around the mouth as this is likely rabies. We even react to photos or paintings. This reaction is instinctive and inevitable, it is a genetic program to give us a survival chance in a very dangerous situation.
It is quite a complex reflex which includes identification of contents. Probably there are a few similar reactions in us but they are certainly less pronounced and I am not aware of them.

Peripheral Vision

Here is an experiment. Let’s go to a crowded pedestrian zone or mall and walk down. We focus with our eyes on a distant point or on a person walking in front of us at the same pace. Without loosing the focus and without moving the eyes we are mindful of the people walking in the opposite direction. We will notice that they all seem to accelerate the closer they come to the edge of our field of vision. In fact our vision exaggerates the motion the closer it is to the edge of our field of vision. It feels a bit unsettling, a bit scary to perceive this. And usually we feel an urge to look there.
The biological background is that we normally only see with a small area in the centre of the eye,the macula. The biggest part of the retina, the background of the eye, consist only of motion and contrast sensors.
We could greatly increase the emotional impact of this experiment by putting up headphones with loud music and just standing. We would still focus our eyes straight ahead and be mindful of the edges of our field of vision. If people now enter from behind and the side this would feel really scary (NOT RECOMMENDED!).
The background: hearing is our first perimeter scan and peripheral vision our second. They are part of base level fear scanning for danger all the times. In the millennia before headphones a sudden movement entering our field of vision with no audible advance warning meant ambush. Something or someone was hiding and is now attacking.
This is instinctive, a genetic program in our mind. Peripheral vision and seeing motion is part of fear. And so is hearing.
People override this all the time when they go for a jog or walk with headphones on. I doubt that this is a good idea. But the psychology of headphones exceeds this blog.

City Center in the Rain

City Center in the Rain

How Fear affects our Vision

In the foreground trumpet of a jazz player, in the background the saxophone player

Live Jazz

People who were in a really dangerous situation will all tell us how this affected the vision. I remember an online article by a police officer. He described in detail encounters with violent criminals. If the fear increased the field of vision narrowed down and on the other hand the resolution of details magnified massively. Sometimes even to a greatly magnified vision of just the gun wielding hand in slow motion.
This can be explained biologically. Seeing is not a passive recording of visual information, seeing is an active scanning process. Normally our eyes constantly scan everything in front of us, roughly the field of a 28mm lense. Fear concentrates our eyes on the most important part and instead of screening at random fear focuses our eyes on whatever seems most important. The field of vision diminishes but the resolution is greatly magnified if the eyes have to cover a much smaller field. So the resulting picture is greatly magnified and the concentration can even lead to slow motion perception.

A black and white picture of the hands and chopsticks of two persons at dinner in selective light


Vision, Fear and Art

There is one very good example how the interaction of fear and seeing was used in art. Sergio Leone and his cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli made extensive use of effects which are directly related our connection between fear and vision. In their movies „The Good , the Bad and the Ugly“, „Once upon a Time in the West“…they often use the extreme cuts from a very wide scene to an extreme close up, for example an eye or a hand or a gun. This reflects the emotional change from a danger signal in the peripheral vision to very concrete fear for life and the accompanying detail vision. This makes these scenes so compelling and memorable.

Screenshots from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

Screenshots from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”