Arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, is considered one of the most common phobias that people face and, as one recent study suggests, it could even be the oldest.

According to researchers from Columbia University in New York, the fear of spiders dates back hundreds of thousands of years ago during the early evolutionary phases of humans in Africa, where spiders posed as an imminent threat.

"A number of spider species with potent, vertebrate-specific venoms populated Africa long before hominoids and have co-existed there for tens of millions of years," said Joshua New, leader of the study. "Humans were at perennial, unpredictable and significant risk of encountering highly venomous spiders in their ancestral environments."

"Even when not fatal, a black widow spider bite in the ancestral world could leave one incapacitated for days or even weeks, terribly exposed to dangers," New added.

As the study further explained, human fear of spiders during the early evolutionary stages became so great that it was eventually embedded at a genetic level. People who were able to easily spot the eight-legged creatures outlasted those who were not as keen.

New and his colleague Tamsin German conducted the experiment to find out how quickly people could spot a spider even when dealing with different visual stimuli. They asked 252 people to view computer screens with various abstract imageries and data. The researchers used images known to induce fear or disgust, including flies and needles.

The research showed that the spiders were still spotted even when the images were distorted and unclear.

In conclusion, New stated that detection was crucial in overcoming such encounters. By improving a person's ability to perceive a threat and react to it provides one with a significant advantage.

However, in contrast to the Columbia University study, Jon May, professor of psychology at Plymouth University, suggests that the fear of spiders is not so much coded into our DNA as it is developed through social conditioning.

Professor May elaborates that the spider's appearance - with all its boney and hairy legs, dark colors and erratic movements - makes it a disturbing sight for humans.

Because of this, children tend to develop arachnophobia if they see their parents or siblings reacting to a spider in a disgusted way.

Photo: Franco Folini | Flickr

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