Tag Archives: fear

Meet the people who literally feel no fear

Courage comes in all shapes and sizes. Running into a burning building to save a person, exposing corruption in a country whose leadership has a history of making journalists disappear, and confronting a bully are all acts that require conquering one’s fear, even when the potential consequences are life-threatening. But that doesn’t mean that these people don’t feel fear — they actually do just as much as you or me. It’s how they handle the fear they feel that sets them apart.

Oddly enough, though, there are people who literally feel no fear at all. For them, looking death in the eye is no more exciting than an oatmeal breakfast. This rare abnormal condition is either owed to disease or some brain damage following an accident that affected the brain circuitry associated with the fear response.

Jordy Cernik abseiled down a 418ft (128 m) tower. Credit: Jordy Cernik.

Take, for instance, the extraordinary case of Jordy Cernik. The British man first knew something was wrong with him when he went skydiving in 2013 and didn’t feel a rush. Since then, Cernik went through all sorts of stunts that would have most people scared beyond belief, including scaling down the edge of the 128-meter National Lift Tower in Northampton, but he found all of them uneventful.

It all started when Cernik was diagnosed with Cushing’s Syndrome in 2005, a medical condition that occurs when the body produces too much cortisol, the main hormone related to the body’s stress response. The excess steroids in the man’s blood made his body feel like it was under a relentless onslaught of imaginary threats. Cernik suffered from excessive weight gain, despite exercising daily and dieting, as well as excessive sweating.

The rare disease, which affects 10 to 15 people per million each year, is caused by a pituitary tumor secreting adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), a hormone that is usually produced by the pituitary gland.

“It’s not a nice one to have,” Cernik told SBS. “Sometimes it can be cured by scraping out the pituitary gland— so that was the brain surgery I had.”

“But mine was persistent and then they ended up having to take my adrenals out just to stop the connection altogether, but then that causes other problems along the way.”

These other problems are those that arise from living life with no fear — quite literally. When Cernik descended one of the tallest towers in the UK on a rope, he was fitted with bands by cognitive scientists that measured his body’s response. These instruments showed that the British man’s body did not react at all as it should have in a normal person.

Scientists believe Cernik’s condition is due to the removal of his adrenal glands during the brain surgery, for which the consequences go beyond just a fearless life. Without any adrenaline in his body, which acts as a sort of painkiller, even a slight injury can be really painful. Also, Cernik doesn’t just feel fear, he’s also devoid of just about any exciting emotion, which makes it incredibly challenging to keep himself motivated.

“It’s just like a switch in my brain that’s gone off and it’s not telling my body to react and its a strange feeling,” he says. 

Fear can be your worst enemy, but also your greatest ally

The amygdala in the brain. Credit: Life Science Databases/Wikimedia Commons.

Humans and just about every sentient creature on Earth feel fear for a good reason, playing a crucial role in our survival and, hence, our evolution. Fear is a primordial emotion that is involved in the brain’s “fight or flight” response. It’s the stimulus that keeps us away from predators or emboldens us to fight back when necessary. It’s such an ancient and instinctual emotion, shared with ancestors that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, that it partly explains why humans are still afraid of heights or insects.

Fear first starts in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which activates other brain areas involved in the fight or flight response and releases stress hormones. In response, the heart and breathing rates rise, blood vessels constrict, and adrenaline kicks in. In some cases, if the fear is extreme, the effects on the body can be so extreme that it is actually possible to be scared to death.

Besides the amygdala, another important region of the brain known as the hippocampus is also involved in the fear response. Closely connected to the almond-shaped amygdala, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex — both heavily involved in higher-order thinking — help us to interpret whether the initially perceived threat is real or not. For instance, seeing a captive lion at the zoo is much less threatening than seeing the same animal untethered in the African savanna at a leaping distance. The hippocampus provides the explicit memory permitting one to define the context of the fear stimulus while the prefrontal cortex processes and tidies up all this information to establish whether or not you should flee, fight, or just chill since there’s an impenetrable barrier between you and the captive zoo creature.

Most people usually experience it in three stages: freeze (a reaction that is rooted in our evolutionary history to keep us hidden from predators), run (the instinct to move away from danger), and fight (when there’s no way to get away from the fear-triggering object, the ultimate response is to fight).

Fear is automatic, meaning you can’t help feeling it. The degree to which people experience fear and find the power to overcome, of course, varies among people. But not feeling any fear at all is extremely rare and it goes without saying that it is unnatural.

This woman visited the world’s scariest ‘haunted house’ and was held at knife-point. She never flinched

Clinical observations suggest that humans who’ve suffered amygdala damage have abnormal fear reactions and reduced experience of fear to the point that it is nonexistent. A 2011 study led by researchers at the University of Iowa describes the case of a patient, going by the initials S.M. to preserve her identity, who has focal bilateral amygdala lesions. Her brain damage is the result of a very rare inheritable disease known as Urbach-Wiethe disease, which is characterized by infiltration of hyaline-like material in the mucous membranes, internal organs, and the brain. In this particular case, calcium deposits on the amygdala caused lesions in the brain region, resulting in an inhibited sense of fear.

The scientists subjected SM to a battery of what were supposed to be nerve-wracking tests, such as exposing her to live snakes and spiders, a haunted house tour, and film clips of scary movies. However, the 44-year-old woman “repeatedly demonstrated an absence of overt fear manifestations and an overall impoverished experience of fear,” according to the researchers.

Although SM told the researchers she ‘hates’ snakes and ‘tries to avoid them’, when she was taken to an exotic pet store, she held one of the snakes for over three minutes during which she rubbed the reptile’s leathery scales, touched its flicking tongue, and closely watched its movements as it slithered through her hands. She also asked 15 different times if she could touch one of the larger snakes, despite the store clerk declining each time, repeatedly cautioning her that the snake in question was dangerous and could bite her.  When asked why she would want to touch something that she knows is dangerous and claims to hate, SM replied that she was overcome with “curiosity.”

During Halloween, the researchers took SM to the Waverly Hills Sanatorium, which regularly ranks as one of the “most haunted” places in the world. The haunted house at the sanatorium is specially designed to elicit fear with eerie scenes, scary music, loud music, and people dressed as monsters, ghosts, or murderers. SM was joined by a group of five women, all of whom were strangers. SM voluntarily led the group through the haunted house, showing no signs of hesitation. “This way guys, follow me!” she beckoned as other members lagged behind her. When monsters leaped out, she always laughed, approached and talked to them. On one occasion, SM frightened one of the supposed monsters by poking them in the head.

The scary movie clips also had the opposite effect. SM exhibited no fear response but she nonetheless found the films exciting and entertaining, inquiring during one particular case about the name of the movie so she could rent it back home. Interestingly, the 10 different fear-inducing films that the researchers selected aimed at inducing a variety of types of emotions, including disgust, anger, sadness, happiness, and surprise. SM exhibited behaviors compatible with all of these emotions — except fear.

Lastly, SM also shared her general experience of fear by completing a self-reported questionnaire and openly talking about events that would have induced trauma in most other people. For instance, she has been held up at knife-point and at gun-point, she was once physically accosted by a woman twice her size, she was nearly killed in an act of domestic violence, and on more than one occasion she has been explicitly threatened with death. However, on no occasion did SM act with desperation or urgency.

During one notably impressive feat, SM was walking alone through a small park in her town when a man beckoned her over a bench. As she approached, the stranger pulled her down and struck a knife to her throat, threatening her “I’m going to cut you, bitch!”. Hearing a church choir sing in the distance, she confidently said, “If you’re going to kill me, you’re gonna have to go through my God’s angels first.” The man let her go and SM confidently walked (not ran) away. The next day, she went back to the same park.

“When asked to recollect how she felt during the aforementioned situations, SM denied feeling fear, but did report feeling upset and angry about what had happened,” the researchers wrote.

Similar to SM, then 28-year-old Jody Smith received a complex brain surgery meant to cure his severe epilepsy which resulted in the removal of not only parts of the amygdala, but also the temporal lobe and hippocampus.

“Surgery was the only option to prevent the chance of the seizures getting worse, continuing to damage my brain, or potentially killing me,” he told VICE.

Smith underwent brain surgery to treat his severe epileptic seizures. In the process, part of his amygdala was removed which greatly diminished his fear response. Credit: Jody Smith/VICE.

Before his surgery, Smith regularly experienced bouts of panic and anxiety, which he attributed to past traumatic experiences from both his father and brother dying when he was very young. Two weeks after his operation, however, Smith no longer had panic attacks. He soon found out that he had an almost superhuman ability to be fearless.

According to Smith, however, his fearlessness can be described as nuanced. He claims he still intellectualizes the potential consequences of a threat and is aware of things that could harm him. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to get the fight or flight response.

“As an avid hiker, I frequently find myself near cliffs,” he said.

“The experience of fear near cliffs was clearly different. I still didn’t want to fall, and would still feel tense if I started to slip when scrambling, but I didn’t feel the fear part of that. That’s when I started to experiment a bit with my fear: by intentionally walking towards cliffs to see what my instincts would say.”

While out and about in Newark, New Jersey, Smith walked close to a group of men who, by all means, looked like they were about to mug him. But instead of panicking or even experiencing a seizure, as his former self would have, Smith simply and calmly passed through them, much to the men’s surprise who left him alone. “Apparently, my lack of fear struck them,” he said.

What acquired fearlessness may teach us about curing our own anxieties

Although a minimal to non-existent fear response may sound dangerous, we luckily live in a modern society where most of the threats and dangers humans have evolved to face are no longer part of the environment. In fact, one could argue that our natural fear response that could have saved our lives during our caveman days is actually a handicap in today’s society. Such irrational fears fuel anxiety, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, and depression.

Nearly one in four people experience a form of anxiety disorder during their lives, and nearly 8 percent experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

But superhuman-like cases such as SM, Smith, and Cernik could help scientists better understand mental health disorders that are due to an exaggerated fear response, such as generalized anxiety disorder.

Frank Herbert’s Dune teaches us that fear is the mind-killer. In the real world, though, fear can also be the life-saver. Like all things in life, a balance must be struck.

Hippocampus.

Researchers identify clump of neurons that block, or allow, frightful memories into our minds

New research is looking into the cells that block, or allow, frightening memories to pop up into our minds.

Hippocampus.

Image credits Henry Gray / Anatomy of the Human Body (1918) via Wikimedia.

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have identified the group of neurons that handle scary, recurrent memories. The findings could help us better tailor therapy for the treatment of anxiety, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Frightful relapse

“There is frequently a relapse of the original fear, but we knew very little about the mechanisms,” said Michael Drew, associate professor of neuroscience and the senior author of the study. “These kinds of studies can help us understand the potential cause of disorders, like anxiety and PTSD, and they can also help us understand potential treatments.”

Drew and his team worked with a group of lab mice, which they trained to associate a distinctive box with fear. Each mouse was repeatedly placed inside the box and given a harmless electrical shock until they started associating this box with feelings of pain. Needless to say, this rendered the mice quite scared of having to go inside said box.

The end result was that the mice would display fear when inside the box. In the second step of the experiment, the same mice were placed inside the box without receiving the shock. They kept displaying fear initially, the team reports. However, as exposure to the box continued without the shock being administered, the association weakened. Eventually, the mice stopped showing signs of fear. The authors explain that repeated exposure without the painful shock created extinction memories in the mice’s minds in place of the earlier, painful and fear-inducing memories.

This is a glimpse of how our brain stores and handles conditioned responses, a process which has been heavily studied and documented ever since Pavlov and his drooling dogs. However, there are still things we don’t understand. Among these, and something the team wanted to understand, is how and why memories or responses we thought were behind us can still pop up in our minds, triggering spontaneous recovery (think of it as a form of traumatic-memory relapse).

In order to find out, they artificially activated fear responses and suppressed extinction trace memories through the use of optogenetics (a technique that uses light to turn neurons on or off).

“Artificially suppressing these so-called extinction neurons causes fear to relapse, whereas stimulating them prevents fear relapse,” Drew said. “These experiments reveal potential avenues for suppressing maladaptive fear and preventing relapse.”

Drew’s team was surprised to find that the brain cells responsible for suppressing or allowing fear memories to surface are nestled in the hippocampus. The traditional view is that fear is born of the amygdala, the primitive ‘lizard’ level of our brains. The hippocampus is actually heavily involved in aspects of memory, but generally in the process of linking memory with spatial navigation. The team’s hypothesis is that the hippocampus’ job is to provide spatial context for memories, i.e. where something happened or how you got there.

Their findings could, therefore, explain why exposure therapy — one of the most common treatment avenues for fear-based disorders — sometimes simply stops working. Exposure therapy works by creating safe (extinction) memories to override the initial, traumatic one. For example, someone who’s scared of spiders after being bitten by one can undertake exposure therapy by letting a harmless spider crawl on his hand.

While the approach is sound, the team reports, it hinges on our hippocampus‘ willingness to play ball.

“Extinction does not erase the original fear memory but instead creates a new memory that inhibits or competes with the original fear,” Drew said.

“Our paper demonstrates that the hippocampus generates memory traces of both fear and extinction, and competition between these hippocampal traces determines whether fear is expressed or suppressed.”

The findings suggest we should revisit how we time exposure therapy, and how frequently patients should undergo exposure sessions, according to the authors.

Paper DOI http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41593-019-0361-z

Faces balloons.

Researchers map how our sensitivity to emotions change over time

We tend to become more emotionally-resilient as we age, a new study suggests.

Faces balloons.

Image credits Gino Crescoli.

Adults tend to have an overall more positive attitude than adolescents, and it may be because they’re less able to pick up on negative emotions, a new paper reports.

Why the long face?

“We found that sensitivity to anger cues improves dramatically during early to mid-adolescence,” says first author Lauren Rutter from the McLean Hospital, Massachusetts. “This is the exact age when young people are most attuned to forms of social threat, such as bullying. The normal development of anger sensitivity can contribute to some of the challenges that arise during this phase of development.”

The team developed a digital test (using the web platform TestMyBrain.org) to gauge the levels of emotion sensitivity across age and socioeconomic groups. Nearly 10,000 participants aged 10 to 85 completed their survey. The test was designed to measure how easily each person picked up on subtle differences in facial cues for fear, anger, and happiness — and, given the wide and diverse sample group, how this sensitivity fluctuates over time.

Each participant was shown images of different faces, presented in pairs, and was asked to compare and contrast the levels of anger, happiness, and fear they conveyed — through questions such as “Which face is more angry?”, etc. The online platform helped the researchers tap into a “much larger and more diverse sample set” than previous studies, Rutter says, and the novel testing method helped improve the accuracy of the results for decoding facial cues.

All in all, the study revealed that sensitivity to facial cues for anger and fear decreases as people age — but the sensitivity to happiness holds firm. The team says that these findings mirror previous studies and anecdotal evidence that point to declines in the ability of people to decode emotional cues, but that the results pertaining to happiness are novel.

 “These findings fit well with other research showing that older adults tend to have more positive emotions and a positive outlook,” Rutter adds.

“It’s well established that there is an age-related decline in the ability to decode emotion cues, in general, but here we see very little decline in the ability to detect differences in happiness,” co-author Laura Germine adds. “This is even though the study was designed to be sensitive to differences in happiness sensitivity with age, based on principles from psychometrics and signal detection theory.

The team plans to expand on their findings by examining how emotional sensitivity fluctuates in relation to differences in mental health, such as anxiety disorders. They also want to investigate how sensitivity to anger and happiness cues might be related to the development of poorer mental health after trauma.

The paper “Emotion sensitivity across the lifespan: Mapping clinical risk periods to sensitivity to facial emotion intensity” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

phobia

Scientists override fear response in humans using artificial intelligence and hard cash

phobia

Credit: Pixabay, Fanette

At least 1 in 14 people has a fear-related psychological disorder, the most common being, in this order, arachnophobia (fear of spiders), ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), and acrophobia (fear of heights). The most common form of treatment is called aversion therapy and involves putting patients face to face with their irrational fears so they might realize there’s nothing to worry about. Rational or irrational, few people actually decide to confront their phobias because these are inherently unpleasant and very stressful.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge, UK, have come up with a novel form of fear reconditioning, though. It involves spotting brain patterns related to fear responses using artificial intelligence. It’s then only a matter of rewiring the experience by associating it with something pleasant, like the smell of freshly baked pie. Just kidding, in this case, they used cash because everybody loves the sweet touch of a powerful currency in their hands. ‘Hmm, free cash. Why was I afraid of a crawling critter a billionth my body size, again?”

The method developed at Cambridge and Osaka, Japan, is called Decoded Neurofeedback. Despite the huge task of decoding the complexities of neural signals inside the brain, the team managed to write an algorithm that makes sense of all the noise and clutter.

For the experiment, 17 healthy volunteers were given a brief, but unpleasant electric shock when a certain computer image came to their attention. This experience eventually created neural patterns that triggered a fear response whenever the image was shown again. The participants didn’t consciously become afraid, but the brain scan suggests the image scared the bejesus out of the subconscious.

“The way information is represented in the brain is very complicated, but the use of artificial intelligence (AI) image recognition methods now allow us to identify aspects of the content of that information. When we induced a mild fear memory in the brain, we were able to develop a fast and accurate method of reading it by using AI algorithms. The challenge then was to find a way to reduce or remove the fear memory, without ever consciously evoking it,” said Dr. Ben Seymour, of the University of Cambridge’s Engineering Department.

To reduce or remove the fearful memory out of their neural drives, the researchers tried to counter-act the response by associating the experience with something pleasant instead. Whenever the artificial intelligence algorithms detected the subconscious fear patterns in a participant, a cash reward was immediately handed out.

The process was repeated over three days. The volunteers were aware of the reason why they were given free money but reported they weren’t aware of the neural patterns, which means they couldn’t game the system.

 

“In effect, the features of the memory that were previously tuned to predict the painful shock, were now being re-programmed to predict something positive instead,” said Dr Ai Koizumi, of the Advanced Telecommunicatons Research Institute International, Kyoto and Centre of Information and Neural Networks, Osaka.

At the end of the trial, the researchers tested their work by showing the same fear-inducing pictures to the study participants. Remarkably, not only was the neural pattern gone, the researchers couldn’t detect feat-sweating, a typical response to fear. The brain’s fear center, the amygdala, was also in normal range.

“This meant that we’d been able to reduce the fear memory without the volunteers ever consciously experiencing the fear memory in the process,” Koizumi said.

Despite the small sample size, the scientists are confident this method can help relieve patients of some of their most troubling fears, be them spiders or the sound of bombshells.

“To apply this to patients, we need to build a library of the brain information codes for the various things that people might have a pathological fear of, say, spiders” adds Dr Seymour. “Then, in principle, patients could have regular sessions of Decoded Neurofeedback to gradually remove the fear response these memories trigger.”

Findings appeared in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

 

Claustrophobia

Why some people are claustrophobic

Claustrophobia

Credit: Flickr user Felix Huth

A fraction of the world’s population will always take the stairs. Some are fitness junkies, but most are claustrophobic — people who suffer from an irrational fear of small enclosures or spaces, a form of anxiety which gives the impression that they’ll be trapped forever.

Claustrophobia is derived from the root Latin words claustrom (“shut in place”) and phobos (“fear”). Though this condition has likely affected people since the dawn of humanity, the first mentions of claustrophobia as a medical condition in scientific journal dates only from the 1870s, when two cases were reported in Paris following a period of rapid urbanization. Some of the most common claustrophobic environments are elevators, airplanes, tunnels, caves, closets, bathrooms or basements.

Not all people suffering from claustrophobia will run away from elevators like it’s the plague, of course. Like most phobias, the anxiety strikes in various degrees of intensity from person to person, depending how powerful the triggers were. This trigger can be genetic, environmental or, as often’s the case, a combination of the two.

Claustrophobia symptoms

A claustrophobic event is very similar to an anxiety attack. The key difference is that while an anxiety attack can be unpredictable, claustrophobia is always triggered by similar events. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Visible physical reactions – the claustrophobic person will almost immediately react to small spaces, first by sweating. This is followed by visible shaking, trembling and in some extreme cases nausea, which can cause some to faint.
  • Inward physical reactions – those with less pronounced forms of claustrophobia will react a bit better, though the anxiety is visible. When entering a small space, they might feel light headed, dry mouthed or get a slight numbness in the extremities.
  • Psychological reactions – When claustrophobia hits bat crazy, the psychological responses can be quite hard: panic, dread, and even terror. Some feel like the room is literally closing in on them, which further exacerbates symptoms.

Claustrophobia causes

That’s as far as symptoms go, but what are the root causes of claustrophobia?

First and foremost, patients develop this phobia from conditioning — like getting stuck in an elevator or closet for prolonged periods of time or in multiple instances. This trauma triggers a fear of similar situations in the future, and while this conditioning often occurs in childhood, even adults can get this phobia later in their lives following a claustrophobic experience like a visit to an MRI machine.

There are also genetic factors that predispose some to claustrophobia more than others. One study suggests that people with panic disorders have smaller amygdalae than the average person. The amygdala is an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe whose role is to process emotions like the fight-or-flight response. This size difference, which is genetically driven, may interfere with how the brain processes fear and the perception of danger.

Other scientists believe we’re all primed for claustrophobia, being a survival instinct that’s intrinsically buried in our genetic code. One group of researchers thinks they’ve identified a single gene defect responsible for triggering the phobia of small spaces.

One 2011 study found claustrophobic individuals have an exaggerated sense of the near space surrounding them — an invisible bubble referred to as the “personal space”. People who project their personal space too far beyond their bodies, or the norm of arm’s reach, are more likely to experience claustrophobic fear, the researchers found.

 

Flies feel fear too, but probably not in the way humans do. Drawing: Kim Carlson

Flies feel fear too, but do they have other emotions as well?

Fruit flies experience fear, one of the primary emotions, according to a new research that suggests there’s much more to flies scattering about in the face of a swatter than a mere robotic reflex. But do the flies feel other emotions too? That’s an extremely difficult question to answer, since the researchers themselves aren’t even sure what they’ve been observing is genuine fear. It does, however, bear all the characteristics of fear. The findings are important since the show that other “lesser beings” that have a primitive nervous system like other insects or spiders might also experience fear, and possibly other emotions as well like happiness or sadness. Who knows, maybe love too?

Flies feel fear too, but probably not in the way humans do. Drawing: Kim Carlson

Flies feel fear too, but probably not in the way humans do. Drawing: Kim Carlson

“No one will argue with you if you claim that flies have four fundamental drives just as humans do: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and mating,” lead author William Gibson said in a press release about the study published in the Journal Current Biology.

“Taking the question a step further — whether flies that flee a stimulus are actually afraid of that stimulus — is much more difficult,” added Gibson, who is a Caltech postdoctoral fellow.

Attaching electrodes to the fly’s brain is difficult and likely doesn’t work very well. So, the best method the scientists had at their disposal to gauge whether or not flies feel fear was purely observational. So, in this case, you need to know very well what are the defining characteristics of fear and how the emotion plays out to single out the behavior in the flies. Gibson argues that there are four basic tenets of fear: persistence, scalability, generalization  across different contexts and trans-situational.  These are called emotion primitives.

“If you’re hiking and hear a rattlesnake, your heart is going to pound and you experience fear long after the snake is gone,” said  California Institute of Technology biologist and lead author David Anderson explaining persistence. Scalability refers to the amplification of the emotion. If you see a rattlesnake nest filled with four, five or even ten snakes you should feel more afraid. Generalization and trans-situational refers to responding in a similar fashion, but in different contexts and situations. If you learn to be afraid of gun shots, you might also shiver when you hear the rattle of a pan hitting the floor or a loud clap.

The experimental apparatus used for the study. Image: Current Biology

The experimental apparatus used for the study. Image: Current Biology

The researchers placed hungry flies in an arena and watched how they behaved when a shadow was overcast. When the shadow was cast over the food, the flies would repeatedly scatter away. Sometimes, the flies froze in place – a defense mechanism often observed in many animals, be them rodents or humans. It also took some time before the flies returned to the food source, despite they were starving, suggesting there’s a lasting psychological state and not a momentary escape reflex. The flies moved away each time the shadow was placed, suggesting persistence. When more than one shadow was cast over the food, most flies scattered at a higher speed, suggesting scalability.

This sort of research is important, since it provides a basic foothold for studying how basic emotions are formed, and possibly how these emotions differ across other species. For instance, Gibson and Anderson can never know for sure what’s in the mind of a fly, but by all “verbal accounts” it does seem to feel fear, at least. It’s unlikely, however, that it feels fear in the way humans do (i.e. not as complex). The findings were reported in Current Biology.

“The argument that this paper makes is that the Drosophila (a type of fly) system may be an excellent model for emotion states due to the relative simplicity of its nervous system, combined simultaneously with the behavioral complexity it exhibits,” Gibson explained.

“There are two difficulties with taking your own experiences and then saying that maybe these are happening in a fly. First, a fly’s brain is very different from yours, and second, a fly’s evolutionary history is so different from yours that even if you could prove beyond any doubt that flies have emotions, those emotions probably wouldn’t be the same ones that you have,” he says. “For these reasons, in our study, we wanted to take an objective approach.” –

In the future, the researchers say that they plan to combine the new technique with genetically based techniques and imaging of brain activity to identify the neural circuitry that underlies these defensive behaviors. The ultimate goal is to identify those neural mechanism involved in creating the emotion primitive responses.

Arachnophobia may be embedded in your DNA

Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is one of the most common phobias humans have. But out of all the spiders that live today, really very few are dangerous – so why is it that we fear them so much then? Researchers from Columbia University believe they might have found the answer to that – and it’s strictly related to human evolution.

Tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, early humans were starting to emerge in east Africa – what we call today the cradle of mankind. Back then and in that area, most spiders they would have encountered posed a great threat to humans, because they were poisonous. During our species’ early evolutionary phases, running into a spider could have been extremely dangerous – so fearing it and being able to avoid it would have been a direct evolutionary advantage.

Joshua New, assistant professor at Columbia University believes that early humans became so afraid of spiders that even after all these years, the phobia is still embedded in our DNA.

“A number of spider species with potent, vertebrate-specific venoms populated Africa long before hominoids, and have co-existed there for tens of millions of years. Humans were at perennial, unpredictable and significant risk of encountering highly venomous spiders in their ancestral environments. Even when not fatal, a black widow spider bite in the ancestral world could leave one incapacitated for days or even weeks, terribly exposed to dangers.”

In order to test out their theory, researchers had 252 volunteers were study computer screens containing abstract shapes and data. Their reactions to images of spiders were especially fast, even if their shape was distorted. An distorted image of a spider produced a much stronger reaction than a clear image of a fly or a needle, for example.

“This ability (to pick out spiders more quickly) was highly specific to stimuli which conformed to a spider ‘template’: participants were frequently inattentionally blind to scrambled versions of the spider stimuli, and to a modern threat (hypodermic needle), and even a different animal (housefly). This demonstrates that some evolutionary-relevant threats are highly-specified and can evoke what is perhaps best termed ‘reflexive awareness’: an immediate and elaborated perception sufficient to guide an adaptive behavioral response.”

These findings fall in line with a previous study at the Emory University School of Medicine that found that fear can be passed on through genes. But the idea that the fear of spiders is passed through genetically isn’t the only theory out there – some scientists claim that learned experience play a much bigger role. Jon May, a professor of psychology at Plymouth University, believes that fearing spiders is a learned condition: when parents or friends react in a specific way (they are afraid of spiders), or even when this is portrayed in the media, children pick this up. Spiders also have specific features (unpredictable movements, angular legs and dark colours) which accentuate the fear. According to Professor May:

“Spiders just tick all these boxes, and like any phobia, when it builds up in someone’s mind they can become scared even seeing a picture. We like bright-coloured butterflies and ladybirds, but spiders are dark coloured with long angular legs – and the shape and colour both have strong negative associations. We are also very sensitive to seeing things moving out of the corner of our eye and immediately notice it, and insects move quickly and unpredictably.”

Journal Reference:  “Spiders at the cocktail party: an ancestral threat that surmounts inattentional blindness,”Joshua J. New and Tamsin C. German. Evolution & Human Behavior (Official journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society). DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2014.08.004.

Woman with no fear intrigues researchers

Courage is not the absence of fear, but being afraid and facing it; for a 44 year old woman who is referred to “SM” for privacy reasons, that is not an option – she can not feel fear, biologically. Researchers have tried and tried with their best techniques to scare her, but there was absolutely no result.

Haunted houses, monsters, snakes and spiders only managed to make her curious or to entertain her; she suffers from a rarecondition called Urbach–Wiethe disease that has destroyed her amygdala, an almond-shaped structure located deep in the brain that plays a crucial role in generating fear responses in numerous mammals, from rats to humans.

This new study revolved around SM and her she was the first ever to confirm that that part of the brain is actually responsible for generating fear responses in humans.

“This is the first study to systematically investigate the experience or feeling of fear in humans with amygdala damage,” lead author Justin Feinstein told LiveScience.

The study could prove to be extremely important in treating post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), especially for soldiers, but not only for them.

“Their lives are marred by fear, and they are oftentimes unable to even leave their home due to the ever-present feeling of danger,” Feinstein said. In contrast, SM is immune to this stress. “Traumatic events leave no emotional imprint on her brain,” he said.

It has to be said, being fearless has its good points and bad points. Her eldest son (she has three children) in his early 20s recalls this instance: ”

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…”

But that’s only the start of it. She has been held at gun and knife point, physically accosted, threatened by death several times and almost died in an act of domestic violence; her life was on the line on numerous occasions, but she was never convicted of a crime. Of course, studying other patients in the same condition as SM would be extremely useful, but this kind of people are almost impossible to find.

“What stands out most is that, in many of these situations, SM’s life was in danger, yet her behavior lacked any sense of desperation or urgency,” the researchers wrote.

It’s a fact – humans can smell fear too!

Since early childhood we’ve been told that if we are afraid of a dog which has turned violent, our furry buddy will “smell” our fear and we will eventually end up bitten. Not the most comfortable feeling ever…but as long as only animals can do it…
Many species are known to release a chemical signal in order to warn other members of the family in case something dangerous occurs; however, a study conducted by Denise Chen from Rice University seems to prove that we can do the same thing too.
When perceiving the world we use all of our senses, some being more important in this process. What researchers wanted to know is how important perceiving fear is.
“Fearful sweat” was collected from several male volunteers who had been given gauze pads for their armpits before being shown videos dealing with subjects which are known to be scary.
After this stage of the study, female subjects were exposed to chemicals from “fear sweat” and then shown different faces which varied from happy to ambiguous and scared. They had to indicate whether the face was happy or fearful by pressing buttons.
The smell of fear made women interpret the faces mostly as fearful in the case of the ambiguous ones, but didn’t change the results if the faces were clearly happy.
In conclusion, emotions caused by a sense can influence the way the same emotion is perceived through another sense, but only if the signals are not clear.

All these show that human sweat is a clear indicator of emotions too, humans being able to sense them and thus be influenced by these signals, mostly if other senses cannot be used.

Other species of animals use smell as a main way of communication when marking their territories or sending a message regarding a possible danger. The way we perceive smells and especially how important it is to us still remains a mystery, a mystery which seems to find a few answers.
source: Rice University