Who’s Afraid of Butterflies?

September 25th, 2011 Books & Publishing, The Sun Herald

The most accessible way to digest a book about phobias is with an alphabetical list. Stephen Juan’s isn’t the first you’ve seen, but with chapters on psychological theory, treatments and the science of phobias it’s the most comprehensive. Many entries are quite simple, such as the one for fear of bald people (peladophobia, from the Greek word ‘pella’ meaning ‘stone’, which implies smoothness). But others delve much deeper, revealing the etymology behind the word, talking about common causes and effects and even mentioning famous sufferers. More common fears also contain comments from everyday phobics, many of whose experiences will be familiar.

Who’s Afraid of Butterflies? helps you appreciate how phobias are as varied, inexplicable and rich as the rest of our emotional landscape. Phobias about things that are supposed to be pleasurable are common, including those about female breasts (mammagymnaphobia) and even sex (genophobia). And imagine how crippling panphobia (fear of all things) must be, or the feedback loop of phobophobia (and yes, there is a phobophobiaphobia — the fear of phobophobia). It’s tempting to find many of them bizarre, even funny (most of us who did quadratic equations hated them, but an irrational fear of them?) but your own experience will bear many of them out.

It’s also a great primer into the science of fear and the value of phobias in the nature/nurture debate. As Juan explains, fear about everything from foreigners to snakes is taught, yet twins separated at birth can sometimes develop the same phobia. Freud considered them stand-ins for deeper fears, and today we’ve even pinpointed the enzymes involved. Together, psychotherapy and drug treatment might consign the crippling effects of a phobia to history.

In fact, fear is one of lynchpins of neuroscience. Whether they’re rational and helped early humans from ending up as lunch or so irrational they interfere with everyday life, they cause a vast number of physiological and metabolic changes as the body prepares itself to fight or flee. Such energy intensive changes are supposed to be short term, but the sustained stress response of a phobia can increasing the risk of anything from heart attack to irritable bowel syndrome.

Another dimension that makes the book even more enjoyable, perhaps unwittingly so, is the delightful nature of language. Some phobia names have a charm all their own, like Novahollandiaphobia (an older term for Australophobia — fear of all things Australian), hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia (the number 666) or phantasicompanionophobia (imaginary friends). And how can you not smile at the word ‘borborygamiphobia’, onomatopoeia for the fear of your stomach gurgling?

Who’s Afraid of Butterflies? will make you realise what a debt our language owes ancient Greek and Latin, and you can even make a game of guessing the fear by the name (no prizes for ‘phallaphobia’). Among the gems are Melissaphobia (Melissa means ‘bee’) or Europhobia (Latin for ‘land of wide-faced people’. Or how about ‘zombie’ from the West African ‘nzambi’ (god)? Some phobia names even reveal prejudices from less enlightened times, like the fear of morally suspect left handedness (sinistrophobia) versus virtuous right handedness (dextrophpbia).

Juan’s writing is stiffly formal — there’s no real reason to use the word ‘personage’ in a non-literary book today — but there’s no better place to go to make yourself an instant expert on one of our most familiar yet mysterious foibles.

Famous phobics

Woody Allen takes the cake. The director’s said to be irrationally afraid of cancer, children, crowds, deer, dogs, elevators, enclosed spaces, high places, insects, poison, social situations, tunnels and uncleanliness.

Some others (starting with the most ironic) are;

Walt Disney – mice
Harry Houdini – enclosed spaces
Natalie Wood – drowning
Clint Eastwood – horses
Robert Pattinson – the dark
Edgar Allen Poe – being buried alive
Tom Cruise – going bald
Benito Mussolini – cats
Oprah Winfrey – chewing gum
Johnny Depp – clowns

And fulfilling the promise of the title, Nicole Kidman suffers from psychephobia, fear of butterflies.

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