Fear is in the mind of the beholder

Oct 21, 2013

You’re watching a scary movie. As the suspense begins building, you notice that your heart rate increases, your pupils dilate, and you that you are beginning to sweat. Is it hot in the room? No, that’s not what’s causing it. What you’re experiencing is good ol’ fashioned fear.

This week on Take Care, Dr. Liz Phelps discusses two kinds of fear: real and fake. Dr. Phelps is the director of the Phelps Lab at NYU and a professor in psychology. Her research focuses on how human learning and memory are changed by emotion, and what neural systems mediate the interactions between the three.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Phelps.

Dr. Phelps points out is that no matter if we are in fear for our lives or just looking for a good thrill on a haunted hay ride, the physiological responses you have are very similar.

“Human adults have the ability to simulate things in their mind and create a good portion of the same biological responses you’d have as if it was happening in the real world, but there is some part of you that knows the difference,” she says.

Knowing the difference between the two is the key to enjoying a good scare rather than feeling threatened by it.  But what makes people actually seek out fake fear to begin with?

While Dr. Phelps notes that research on the topic of fear of the make believe is lacking, she speculates, “that some individuals like thrills more than others, and that some individuals seem to have a need to have a little bit more arousal in their lives than others.” The reasons for this are unknown, but possibilities include genetic differences and better technology that further removes us from the actual danger than ever before.

What happens when fear goes beyond the thrill induced by a roller coaster ride or the latest Paranormal Activty installment though? For some people, fear is a serious part of their everyday lives in the form of phobias and fear disorders.

While Dr. Phelps says the factors that make someone more susceptible to developing a fear disorder are yet to be completely defined, the process of how someone develops a fear disorder is becoming more and more clear.

Fear disorders develop in the brain, and often happen when the amygdala, the part of the brain that determines possible threats and stores fear memories, is not properly inhibited by another part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is often caused by stress, which can impair the prefrontal cortex from properly inhibiting the fear. A result can be a long lasting fear of the stimulus that caused the process.

While experiencing fear is normal, Dr. Phelps says that, “the part of the problem in somebody with a fear disorder is what they don’t do is now realize that ‘okay, in this circumstance, I’m not threatened’” even if the person is in no danger.

The most common form of treatment for fear disorders is to expose the person to what induces the fear. In confronting it regularly instead of avoiding it, the person can come up with strategies to effectively manage and inhibit their fear.

Dr. Phelps believes the future of fear containment is in working on memory. She proposes a method where a fearful memory is retrieved in the brain and then altered or disrupted to change the fear before it is stored again. While plenty of research is still needed in order to optimize this idea, she believes that the next decade will bring some exciting developments in this field.

“All of these things come from learning, and so we need to target that learning and then we may be able to change the fear,” she says.