Who’s Afraid of Butterflies?

Who's Afraid of ButterfliesThe 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.

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