Humans have an uncanny ability to make out shapes and faces in the dark that isn’t there. People do this because the brain is deprived of visual information to form a complete picture. So brain fills in the blanks without telling us. But the fact that 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 the 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 there’s a part of all of us that 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 own home in the dark. If the lights are off, 10% of adults are too afraid of the dark to even 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 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 to do 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, though it is often 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 from fear of darkness and Lygophobia fear twilight. The fear of darkness is an extremely common fear where it first occurs in around 90% of children around 2. Many children will commonly experience this fear during 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 for us 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 to be permanently imprinted into our subconscious and looks especially strong in kids. That’s because kids have extra active imaginations, which allow them to imagine all sorts of strange dangers that could bump in the night.
Why are people scared of the dark?
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 a long, long time that humans had to defend themselves against the myriad of natural threats they shared the African planes with.
Humans were constantly threatened by animals such as 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. In fact, 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 just 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. And nurture to keep safe from the perils of the night. It’s not just a natural selection that enforces this fear. Children are seeing their parents become afraid when going out at night. And 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. This is because when its dark brain produces a hormone called Melatonin. It is created in the pineal gland that helps to 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. This can eventually lead to worsening depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.
Melatonin deprivation has also been linked to increases in blood pressure and cancer rates. Being scared has its advantages. Human kind’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 were the hunted ones 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. In adults, this is extremely serious 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 causes fear. Possible causes of Nyctophobia are thought to be due to 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 even sexual abuse.
It is because those who go through such an experience will react in different ways. And they may associate their surroundings with the event, which makes them fearful of it. While most currently think of the fear of the dark, there may also be an evolutionary component.
How to overcome the fear of darkness?
To stop being scared at night or in darkness, you need to follow some steps.
- The most common technique to overcome the dark fears to reframe what you define as the dark.
- Do a little meditation or some rhythmic breathing. Do something very peaceful and very calming to kind of get your mind ready for sleep.
- Make sure that the bedroom is like a peaceful place.
- You could sleep with your door open and start controlling the way that you react.
- A lot of times, fear starts with rapid breathing 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 so 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.
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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.