What are you afraid of? If you’re like most normal, sane people, the emotion of fear is one hell of an evolutionary ally. Grizzly bears, falling off of a mountain, poisonous snakes, a gun pointing at your head, being stuck in a room with a starving Oprah – all of these fears go a long way towards keeping yourself alive.
But then there are some fears that aren’t so rational. The folks who go around with antibacterial wipes to open doors or the people who won’t walk on grass for fear of coming across a harmless snake are just a couple of examples. What causes these people to be so insanely afraid of mostly harmless everyday activities?
The answer might be even more complicated than you think. According to a new study from Northwestern University, the mechanisms in the brain that deal with immediate and long-term held fears are completely different.
Katherina Hauner, post-doctoral fellow in neurology, recently conducted some studies with people morbidly afraid of spiders. I mean so afraid that even pictures of spiders freaked them out and some refused to walk on grass for fear of coming across one. Still others wouldn’t even go inside their house for days if they thought a spider was in there.
Real nut jobs.
Through a two-to-three hour treatment, Hauner slowly introduced the patients to their nemesis – a giant hairy tarantula. They were taught that their beliefs about tarantulas were not true. For example, they could not jump out of their cage and land on them and they were not capable of planning something evil to purposefully hurt them.
Again, we’re dealing with real nut jobs here.
After learning the truth – that the tarantula was docile and more afraid of them than they were of it – they slowly got closer and closer. First they touched the cage, then touched with spider with a paint brush. After they saw that was fine, they donned a glove and actually touched the spider. The finale for many of them was actually touching or holding the spider.
During their initial frights, an fMRI scan revealed the regions of the brain associated with fear response – the amygdale, insula and cingulated cortex – lighting up like a Christmas tree. After the treatment – which pretty much completely cured them – another scan showed physical changes in the activity of the area of the brain responsible for suppressing those fear responses.
Six months later, the participants were still cured. However, the brain scans revealed the fear suppression responses had gone back to normal.
So what changed? Obviously, there must be some other section of the brain that helps ward off fears for the long run.
As of now, there’s no answer.
But let me go off on a tangent for a second. If you Google Northwestern and tarantula today, you’ll likely find all the normal mass media outlets blaring this story for how amazing it is that this neurologist was able to cure arachnophobia in just one three-hour session.
I went another direction.
First of all, I think it’s more interesting that different sections of the brain control different aspects of fear. Second of all, I don’t see how the cure is all that helpful. Sure, those people out there who are dumb enough to be that crazily afraid of spiders could find some solace. But what about the people who are afraid of heights, or poisons, or Oprah? What are you going to do, drop them off higher and higher precipices without a parachute? Give them higher and higher doses of poison so they learn what it feels like? Stick them in a room with Oprah 12 hours, 24 hours and 48 hours after her last meal?
I didn’t think so.