Humans have an uncanny ability to make out shapes and faces in the dark that isn’t there. People do this because the brain lacks visual information to form a complete picture. So brain fills in the blanks without telling us. But people see things in the dark that isn’t there isn’t the reason for being afraid of the black of the night.
So what is? Most people are afraid of darkness from 4-6 years old. This fear tapers off when it reaches the age of nine, but it never truly goes away. Some adults are considerably more afraid of the dark than others. But a part of us has an apprehension towards dark places.
Why are people scared of the dark? In a poll, 40% of adults admitted feeling scared walking around their homes in the dark. If the lights are off, 10% of adults are too afraid of the darkness to get out of bed. Severe fear of the dark is called Nyctophobia. If someone is terrified of the night, they might think it could help to sleep with the lights on. But they may unwittingly be harming their brain.
What is Nyctophobia?
Nyctophobia is a severe fear of the dark. Thousands of years ago, humans evolved to have this natural fear of the dark. Many believe it has less to do with the darkness and more with nighttime and the unknown. It’s all the unknown and unexpected dangers that could be lurking hidden in the dark. It’s hard for a human to spot a threat in the dark.
For most of human history, people had to take extra precautions at night to ensure they weren’t attacked by an unseen creature prowling nearby. One of the biggest precautions we learned was a natural fear of the dangerous, unpredictable dark. That healthy fear kept us safe during nighttime hours in the wild.
Darkness as a condition is the polar opposite of brightness. It is the condition where visible light is absent. As the sun starts to set and night begins, darkness approaches. The fear of darkness is called Achluophobia, known as Nyctophobia. Nycto came from Nyctus, which means night or darkness, while phobia comes from Phobos, dread, or deep fear.
Besides, Nyctophobia and Achluophobia, other names such as Scotophobia for fear of darkness and Lygophobia for fear of twilight. The fear of darkness is an extremely common fear that first occurs in around 90% of children around 2. Many children commonly experience this fear between 6 and 12 due to being left alone.
Most children grow out of this as they get older and become adults, but some adults still fear it. When experiencing Nyctophobia, becoming nervous in a dark environment or being reluctant to sleep without light is very common. This can result in both physical and psychological changes. Physical symptoms include shivering, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and nausea, to name a few.
Being afraid means you’re extra aware and extra vigilant. So being afraid of the dark became an advantage for those sensible enough to be scared. Nowadays, there are not nearly as many reasons to fear the darkness.
Most of us fall asleep every night safely tucked into a bed inside a house where night-brawling predators can’t reach. Yet, the fear seems permanently imprinted into our subconscious and looks especially strong in kids. That’s because kids have extra active imaginations, allowing them to imagine all sorts of strange dangers that could bump at night.
Why are people scared of the dark?
Here are several common factors that contribute to why people are scared of the dark:
Evolutionary Factors: Humans are diurnal creatures, meaning we are naturally active during the day and have evolved to rely on sight as our primary sense. Without light, our vision becomes limited, and our survival instincts may trigger a sense of vulnerability or danger. This fear may have provided an evolutionary advantage by keeping our ancestors cautious and alert in the darkness, where potential predators could pose a threat.
Lack of Visual Information: Darkness obscures our ability to see and perceive our surroundings. When we don’t know what’s around us, our imagination tends to fill in the gaps, leading to feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. Our minds may conjure up imaginary threats or worst-case scenarios, heightening our fear response.
Loss of Control: Darkness often comes with a loss of control or a sense of helplessness. We rely heavily on our vision to navigate and gather environmental information. When we can’t see, we may feel disoriented, unable to anticipate potential dangers or protect ourselves effectively.
Cultural and Media Influence: Cultural factors, childhood experiences, and exposure to media can also contribute to the fear of the dark. Stories, movies, and cultural narratives often associate darkness with danger, monsters, or the unknown. Such portrayals can reinforce the fear and shape our beliefs about the potential threats lurking in the dark.
Past Traumatic Experiences: For some individuals, a fear of the dark may stem from past traumatic experiences, such as being involved in a dark and dangerous situation or experiencing a childhood trauma associated with darkness. These experiences can create lasting emotional associations and contribute to fear.
Our earliest human-like ancestors first appeared around seven million years ago. Although, humans didn’t first step foot off the African continent and into the Middle East until 1.75 million years ago. That’s long since humans had to defend themselves against the myriad of natural threats they shared the African planes with.
Humans were constantly threatened by lions, hippos, crocodiles, rhinos, and snakes until we learned to defend ourselves. Early human ancestors didn’t stand a chance against the pride of lions without modern tools or shelter. This problem was made even worse during the night. Predators used the pitch black of the night to their advantage.
A lonely defenseless human wandering the planes of Africa didn’t stand a chance in the dark. After all, lions and other predators can see in the dark considerably better than humans. 60% of lion attacks in Tanzania between 1988 and 2009 were between the dark hours of 6 pm and 9:45 pm. Because of this, humans developed an instinctive fear of the dark. That feeling of anxiousness you get when you’re trekking through a dark place is an ancient reaction that humans have evolved to warn us that dark places are dangerous.
The emotion that is anxiety is a tool the human body uses to get the job done, and that job is keeping us safe in the dark. Over millions of years, this fear has been fine-tuned by nature. Nurture to keep safe from the perils of the night. It’s not natural selection that enforces this fear. Children are seeing their parents become afraid when going out at night. More recently, mothers telling their children not to go out past eight o’clock have helped reinforce and improve humankind’s ability to stay anxious and fearful of the dark.
This ability may not be as relevant nowadays because people no longer have to contend with ferocious wild animals daily. But even in our modern world, the night still holds many threats, most of the human variety.
- Sleeping alone.
- Strange noises.
A study at Ohio State University discovered that sleeping with the lights on damages the brain and increases depression. It is because when it’s dark brain produces a hormone called Melatonin. It is created in the pineal gland, which helps regulate the body’s sleep cycle. When we don’t get enough sleep or sleep in a room that isn’t entirely dark, melatonin production is severely inhibited.
Over time a lack of melatonin can have negative consequences on the body. Such as, the Brain will age faster. Melatonin deprivation speeds up the rate at which the brain ages.
Researchers think that the elderly often have more trouble sleeping because their brain doesn’t produce as much melatonin as younger individuals. Which may also contribute to the degradation of brain function that some people suffer from during old age.
A lack of melatonin can also lead to a condition known as S.A.D., short for Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is associated with sufferers of depression. Sufferers of SAD have an altered schedule for melatonin release. They don’t produce melatonin until later in their sleep cycle, meaning they get less melatonin overall. It can worsen depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.
Melatonin deprivation has also been linked to blood pressure and cancer rates. Being scared has its advantages. Humankind’s fear of the darkness stems from the days of early humanity, long before they evolved into modern humans. Humans haven’t always been at the top of the food chain. Before the advent of the hunter-gatherer, humans hunted for quite a while afterward.
Effects of Darkness fear
Psychological symptoms include becoming clingy, not wanting to go outside at night, or even refusing to sleep alone. This condition can result in a lack of sleep, anxiety, or even mental disorders like depression. This is extremely serious in adults because it may lead to a lack of productivity and affect their daily livelihood. Most people, especially children, fear what can come from the darkness or what may come out if the light is turned on in darkness.
This results in frightful images being created that cause fear. The possible causes of Nyctophobia are being alone in the dark as a child, being shown different media about gore or paranormal activities, and traumatic experiences such as domestic violence or sexual abuse.
Those who go through such an experience will react in different ways. They may associate their surroundings with the event, which makes them fearful. While most currently think of the fear of the dark, there may also be an evolutionary component.
How to overcome the fear of darkness?
You must follow steps to stop being scared at night or in darkness.
- The most common technique to overcome dark fears is to reframe what you define as the dark.
- Do a little meditation or some rhythmic breathing. Do something peaceful and calming to get your mind ready for sleep.
- Make sure that the bedroom is a peaceful place.
- You could sleep with your door open and start controlling how you react.
- A lot of times, fear starts with rapid breathing and starting to panic. If you control your breathing and slowly rhythmically breathe in and out, it’s harder for the rest of those panic symptoms to come in and start to manifest.
Many creatures hunt at night, and early humans are no exception. The fear of those experiences may have been ingrained over many years as a learned behavior. This is why many things in media, like movies and games related to horror, have a dark theme. It makes us uneasy and causes us to imagine things that may or may not be there.
Irwin, Louis Neal. Scotophobin: Darkness at the Dawn of the Search for Memory Molecules.
Mikulas, William L. “Behavioral Bibliotherapy and Games for Treating Fear of the Dark.” Child & Family Behavior Therapy.
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