Each of us has felt afraid, and we can all recognize fear in many animal species. Yet there is no consensus in the scientific study of fear. Some argue that 'fear' is a psychological construct rather than something discoverable through scientific investigation. Others argue that the term 'fear' cannot properly be applied to animals because we cannot know whether they feel afraid. Studies in rodents show that there are highly specific brain circuits for fear, whereas findings from human neuroimaging seem to make the opposite claim. Here, I review the field and urge three approaches that could reconcile the debates. For one, we need a broadly comparative approach that would identify core components of fear conserved across phylogeny. This also pushes us towards the second point of emphasis: an ecological theory of fear that is essentially functional. Finally, we should aim even to incorporate the conscious experience of being afraid, reinvigorating the study of feelings across species.
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