I know that I – for one – have often rolled my eyes as someone recounted just how large something from their past was. The fish I almost caught was three-feet-long, the spider was nearly a foot across, or the wolf that could have eaten me was bigger than a deer (okay, so I believe the last one.) I’ve always believed that people exaggerate their frightful encounters to make the situations seem more dire than they actually were.
But new research out of the Ohio State University says I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. They might actually have perceived and remembered the objects of their anxiety to be that large.
Michael Vasey wanted to take a look to see how fear influences our perceptions. It may seem silly, but there are strong connections between the visual cortex and the amygdala, which is crucially implicated in a person’s response to phobias. Plus, that connection is a two-way street. In the face of a threat, the amygdale seems to recruit perceptual resources and focus on the threat.
To see if this results in a physical perceptual change, Vasey brought in 57 individuals who all claimed that they were afraid of spiders. He then made them use short prods to chase tarantulas around their cages for a few minutes. Getting their hands so close to a big, hairy spider obviously got the participants a bit riled up. Afterwards, the participants filled out some surveys to indicate just how scared they had been and were asked to draw a line as long as the spider.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the results showed a definite effect. Those who were the most scared of spiders overestimated their size more than those who were less afraid by about 20 percent.
Vasey acknowledges that the study fails to differentiate whether the subjects saw a bigger spider while they were playing with one or if they just remembered it as being bigger. That’s a difference between perception and encoding memories. But either way, it seems as though our bodies are hard wired to remember threats as being bigger than they actually were.
Which makes sense. The bigger I remember a hungry wolf to be, the more likely I am to stay the hell away in the future.