Informative but lackluster summary of current research on, speculation about, and treatments for such common fears as agoraphobia, claustrophobia, zoophobia, etc.
Instead of providing cheery maxims and smarmy self-help regimens, New Scientist contributing editor Saul muddies the waters with a respectful but numbing review of existing scientific research about the human tendency toward irrational, prolonged states of fear. These paralyzing difficulties have remained stubbornly resistant to analysis or cure over centuries of religious, scientific, and pseudo-scientific inquiry. Saul, who is also an editor of the European Journal of Cancer, suggests that phobia studies are in some way similar to cancer research, in that what was once thought to be specific illness is quite probably an array of complicated afflictions, some curable, some extremely tough to ameliorate. Could claustrophobia and fear of snakes be retrograde memories of our ancestor's lives in caves? Are some fears—of trains, bridges, spiders, specific foods, for example—culturally derived? Certain phobias, such as the perpetual handwasher's fear of dirt, seem related to obsessive-compulsive disorders. Others appear to be inherited traits, while still others are triggered by childhood or adolescent psychological trauma. Saul uncritically cites research suggesting that blond-haired, blue-eyed northern Europeans are more “nervous” and phobia-prone than darker-haired, brown-eyed, “calmer” Mediterranean people. Among the numerous psychological, pharmacological, and alternative medical treatments, she finds that cognitive therapy, which teaches phobics how to resist irrational responses, has so far had the best success record, though it’s by no means a hundred percent.
Interesting enough to win a UK Medical Journalist Association award, but ultimately bewildering, with reams of inconclusive detail.