The Fear Project A new book exploring life's most primal emotion

Science of Fear

Science has made some huge strides in understanding fear in recent years. Here, you’ll find some of the most recent ones, many of which I reference in The Fear Project (B&N, Indiebound, Amazon )

Our Assumptions About Who Take Risks Aren’t Always Right

Men take more risks than women and teenagers are the most brazen of all of us, especially boys — right? Well, those stereotypes may be true sometimes, but a recent study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science shows that in some realms — social risks like taking on a new career later in life, for example — women take more risks than men. And in certain lab situations, teens are as cool-headed as older adults. More here.

Another myth busting survey, sociologists out of the University of Vermont and Pennsylvania State University found that people often get more liberal with age rather than more conservative. More here.

Does Fear Perpetuate Group Identity?

It’s obvious that one of the core desires for human is to belong to a group, but how much of our obsession with labels and maintaining traditions is about fear of losing a group to belong to? Michael J.A. Wohl, a psychology professor at Carleton University, has found in his research that, “Jews who experience collective angst are more likely to want to marry fellow Jews, express the need to pass along Jewish traditions to children and donate to Jewish organizations.”  Wohl has found similar results with Catholics, French Canadians, Tamil-Canadians, and other ethnic and religious groups. Read Wohl’s article about the anxiety of group survival here.

Can a Computer Program Cure Social Anxiety?

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is a very common condition, and people who suffer from it tend to prioritize threats or negatives in social situations. For example, if you have SAD and you see a disgusted face in a crowd of neutral faces, you tend to focus on the disgusted face, leading you to wonder if the person is disgusted with you. There are many types of therapy to address social anxiety: meditation, exercise, talk therapy, exposure therapy, but a new, experimental type of therapy — cognitive bias modification (CBM)– can be done on the computer. To boot, it doesn’t take much time. The CBM programs train people with SAD to emphasize, for example, positive or neutral faces instead of negative faces by luring their attention toward the positive faces with various cues. In other CBM programs, people with SAD are lured toward positive words instead of negative words. More research is needed, psychologists say, but several studies, like this one out of Brown University, show amazingly positive results after just weeks of using CBM. The therapy is summarized well in this recent article in The Economist. Unfortunately, it’s not available yet for popular use.

Hypnosis Not Just a Carnival Trick

Hypnosis has been touted as a cure for phobias, anxiety disorders, and panic disorder for more than a century, but it has had a hard time gaining traction in the mainstream due to its associations with scams and carnival tricks. No longer. A new Stanford study, for example, was able to observe why some people — about 10-percent of the population — are easily hypnotizable by watching people’s brains in and fMRI while they’re being hypnotized. According to the San Francisco Chronicle’s reporting of the study, “David Spiegel, the study’s senior author, defines hypnosis as a state of highly focused attention, achieved through deep breathing and muscle relaxation. When patients are fully hypnotized, they can, for instance, alter their minds to perceive pain as less painful.” The researchers say being able to slip into hypnosis easily is still mysterious — maybe genetic, maybe environmental, probably both — but one theory is that children who have to use their imaginations a lot develop the ability.

Extreme Sports Are Good For You

Men’s Health Magazine reported a story recently citing a Texas A&M study that found that adventure sports are more adrenaline and cortisol inducing than public speaking, usually thought of as the king of stressors. The researchers found that participating in such sports help you deal with stress in everyday life if: they’re dangerous (involving the risk of death), unpredictable, and social (so you feel like you have to perform for others). The researchers also found that the fittest guys had less adrenaline and cortisol in the system after participating in adventure sports, showing, perhaps, that the fittest humans handle stress better.

Read the full story.

More Evidence that Republicans Are More Risk Averse than Democrats

In the September, 2012 issue of Scientific American, Emily Laber-Warren recounts a study in which “a team led by psychologist Michael Dodd and political scientist John Hibbng of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln found that when viewing a collage of photographs, conservatives’ eyes unconsciously lingered 15 percent longer on repellent images, such as car wrecks and excrement—suggesting that conservatives are more attuned than liberals to assessing potential threats.”

Laber-Warren also writes that when folks feel more threatened, they become more conservative and vice-versa. In an upcoming Yale study, “asking Republicans to imagine that they possessed superpowers and were impermeable to injury made them more liberal.”

Read more


Meditation Helps Reduce Affects of PTSD

According to The Washington Post, “by some estimates, 10 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan show effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.” Simple daily meditation may be one of the best medicines. According a pilot study published in the June 2011 issue of Military Medicine (Volume 176, Number 6), “Veterans of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars showed a 50 percent reduction in their symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after just eight weeks of practicing the stress-reducing Transcendental Meditation technique.” More studies with larger samples of soldiers will be released shortly.

The Fear of Pain May Actually Create More Pain

In the movies, our fearless heroes seem to shrug off gunshot wounds and laugh at their torturers. They’re so fearless, they don’t even fear (or seem to feel) pain. Now researchers at Stanford have begun to show that the fear of pain and the experience of pain are highly correlated.

“This study has some pretty strong implications,” said Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, assistant professor of anesthesia and co-author of the study. “If we can learn to control the fear about pain, maybe that will help us better control the pain.” Read more about the study here.

The Smell of Fear May Help Us Focus

Many animals can sense fear through smell, including, it seems, us. In this fascinating study, Dr. Denise Chen and colleagues took sweat samples from the underarms of men and women who had just watched a scary movie or a benign documentary. They then asked a different sample of undergraduates to smell the sweaty swabs. Though the test subjects couldn’t distinguish consciously between the fear sweat or the benign sweat, when they were asked to perform a cognitive test — determining whether two words that flashed on a screen were related — those who had smelled the fear sweat performed better.

I find this particularly interesting in reference to studies Professor Sian Beilock writes about in her wonderful book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, in which students usually perform worse on cognitive tests when fear factors are turned up (putting money on the line or videotaping, for example). The difference between the two studies may suggest that the physiologic stress response — at least when it’s light — is not what hinders performance, but rather the psychological factors of stress, including our beliefs and associations. Read more about the smell of fear here.

How Fear Narrows Our Focus

It’s well-known that extreme fear often narrows our focus, which is why many police officers, firemen, and soldiers have reported seeing tunnel vision in the midst of an emergency. Though this isn’t always the case, (there have been many reports of field of vision widening under stress too), this Australian study showed that it generally is the case, and it’s not just our vision that narrows. Seventy novice skydivers were given a list of words, some relevant to their dive, others completely irrelevant. The group was then split in half, with 35 of them completing their hair-raising first jump, and the other half staying on the ground. Following the dive, the ones who jumped could recall as many relevant words as the grounded group, but they could remember fewer irrelevant words. Read more here.

Fear Slows Labor, a Norwegian Study Finds

More than 80 years after Dr. Grantley Dick-Read coined the “Fear Tension Pain Cycle” by watching mother’s fears hinder labor, there is now peer-reviewed science to confirm that fear does indeed affect the ease of labor. A 2012 Norwegian study that surveyed 2,206 women found that those who ranked high in fear of labor – determined by an elaborate questionnaire – endured longer labors by an average of nearly an hour, and that was after adjusting for factors of first-time moms and drugs during labor. Read the study here.

Why do kids fear the dreaded broccoli?

According to a new study of twins published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, kids who hate eating their greens may actually be able to blame their parents. According to the researchers, food preferences may be “as inheritable a physical characteristic as height.” According to an article in the AP, scientists think neophobia, or fear of new foods, “was originally an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect children from accidentally eating dangerous things — like poisonous berries or mushrooms.” Read more.

Does Marijuana Make Your More Fearless

Researchers at Duke University and the National Institutes of Health have found a way to calm the nerves of fearful mice by changing their brain chemistry in a way that resembles how humans’ brains are altered if we smoke pot. They found that mice who had been trained to fear a shock healed their fear faster if they had higher endocannabinoid levels. Not surprisingly, the endocannabinoids affected the amygdala, the fear center. Read more

Do Conservatives Fear More than Liberals

From Psychology Today: “Peering inside the brain with MRI scans, researchers at University College London found that self-described conservative students had a larger amygdala than liberals. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is active during states of fear and anxiety. Liberals had more gray matter at least in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain that helps people cope with complexity.”
Read the full story. (*I’ll be elaborating on this subject soon. Stay tuned.)

Do Phobias Make Us Age Faster?

“Many people wonder about whether—and how—stress can make us age faster,” Olivia Okereke, a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said recently. So she and a team of researchers tried to find out.

According to Scientific American: “The researchers examined blood samples and survey results from 5,243 women ages 42 to 69 from the ongoing Nurses Health Study cohort. They found that women who had the highest levels of phobic anxiety had biological markers of women who were six years older. The findings were published online July 11 in PLoS ONE.
Read more

The Smell of Fear

Fabulous story in The New York Times about how fish sense fear and the implications this might have for humans. I found this especially interesting in reference to what neuroscientist Daniela Schiller told me recently. She said that how humans process smells may be similar to how we process trauma. There’s a lot of work to be done still, she said, but looks like scientists are ahead of the game in the pelagic arena. Check it out.

When one fish is injured, others nearby may dart, freeze, huddle, swim to the bottom or leap from the water. The other fish know that their school mate has been harmed. But how? In the 1930s, Karl von Frisch, the famous ethologist, noted this behavior in minnows. He theorized that injured fish release a substance that is transmitted by smell and causes alarm. But Dr. von Frisch never identified the chemical composition of the signal. He just called it schreckstoff, or “scary stuff.” Schreckstoff is a long-standing biological mystery, but now researchers may have solved a piece of it. In a study published in February in Current Biology, Suresh Jesuthasan, a neuroscientist at the Biomedical Sciences Institutes in Singapore, and his colleagues isolated sugar molecules called chondroitins from the outer mucus of zebra fish. Read on…

Courage and the Brain

In this 2010 study, published in Neuron, researchers in the Department of Neurobiology of the Weizmann Institute of Science, asked people who were afraid of snakes to bring a live snake close to their heads. Meanwhile, the scientists peaked in at the snake phobics’ brains with an fMRI while they chose to try to overcome their fear. It turned out that a part of the brain in the right temporal lobe (sgACC) activated when phobics chose to be courageous and bring the snake closer. This part of the brain, between the eyes, a more modern evolution, seemed to compete with the amygdala, the ancient fear center deep in the limbic system. When the phobics succumbed to their fear, the ancient brain seemed to have won. Interestingly, the phobics could show physiologic fear (sweat) but say they weren’t afraid and still be courageous. Or they could say they were afraid but not actually sweat and still overcome the fear. But when they felt afraid and sweat, meaning the amygdala had communicated its response to the body and the conscious mind, the phobics lost and succumbed to their fear. Read the interpretation in Scientific American.

Fear and Obesity

A 2012 study by Rachel Gross shows how fear of not knowing where the next meal comes from actually can lead to obesity. The gist here was that poor mothers who stress about putting food on the table often try to over-control their children’s eating habits: giving too much or even too little. The over-control leaves children not knowing how to regulate their own eating and thus leads to more frequent obesity.

The Biology, benefits, and downsides of being born fearless

This study was mind-bendingly fascinating. Published in Current Biology, it describes a patient they call SM with a very rare congenital disease that had left holes where her amygdala — the fear center in the ancient brain — usually would be. Researchers couldn’t believe their luck when they found her and proceeded, of course, to try to scare her while she was wired up to various measuring gizmos. They took her to the scariest movies – Silence of the Lambs, Haloween – and the freakiest haunted houses. She just laughed. They introduced her to live snakes and spiders and she wanted to hold them. (Though SM claimed to fear snakes, when she actually saw them, she had no physiological fear response.) SM didn’t show a single biological sign of fear. Interviews revealed that SM’s lack of fear had gotten her into occasional trouble: she had been attacked at knife and gun-point, threatened with death, and nearly killed in an act of domestic violence. “Yet,” the researchers wrote, in every scenario, “her behavior lacked any sense of desperation or urgency.” In-fact, the night after SM had walked through a park alone and been attacked with a knife, she walked through the same park alone again. SM said she felt angry about the attack, but not the least bit scared.

Amazingly, despite an unusual number of close encounters, SM had not only survived. She had raised three children. One of her sons is quoted in the study on the oddities of having a fearless mom: “Me and my brothers were playing in the yard and mom was outside sitting on the porch. All of a sudden we see this snake on the road. It was a one lane road, and seriously, it touched from one end of the yard all the way to the other side of the road. I was like, ‘Holy cow, that’s a big snake! ‘ Well mom just ran over there and picked it up and brought it out of the street, put it in the grass and let it go on its way…” Read more in Science.

Can scary memories be erased?


This isn’t a study, but it summarizes many studies NYU’s Joseph Ledoux — one of the foremost experts on fear and the brain — has done in regard to fear and memory. Things we learn to fear obviously depend on memories, painful memories. But what if, like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, our bad memories could be erased? Is this possible? Well, sort of. Check out LeDoux’s summary in Huffpo. This is a topic I get into in more detail in The Fear Project book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>