Fear Responses Erased When People Learn Something New In Presence of Fearful Stimuli

Recent research from scientists at the University of Amsterdam suggests that memories may be a valuable tool in and of themselves in erasing long-held fear responses.

Dieuwke Sevenster MSc, Dr Tom Beckers and Prof. Merel Kindt developed a method to determine what circumstances were necessary for an acquired fear response to be susceptible to change over a long period of time.

Here is the method of study they used:

"For their study the researchers used a fear conditioning procedure in which a specific picture was followed by a nasty painful stimulus.  While the participants viewed the pictures, the researchers measured the anticipation of the painful stimulus as well as the more autonomous fear response on the basis of the startle reflex."

By setting up the procedure this way, they were hoping to 'prime' a fear response into the participants, which would relate these pictures with painful stimuli, a form of classical conditioning.

In order to measure if a person actually learned something new, the researchers used measures for Prediction Error - the difference between a person's anticipation of what is going to happen, and what actually happens.

Participants were told to do the opposite of what their normal reaction to the fear response was (that is, they should attempt to calm themselves down, take deep breaths, or laugh, whenever they see these pictures).  

By doing this, the researchers found that the acquired fear response for that specific fear was shown to be totally erased a day or month later.  The researchers found over and over again that the fear didn't return, despite the use of techniques specifically aimed to make it return.  

This seems to mean that the fear memory was either fully removed, or could no longer be accessed within the person's memory.  

An intersting finding was that while participants could still remember the association with the fear, that particular memory no longer triggered the fear response like before.

The researchers have shown that the fear response can be eradicated completely, provided that the person concerned actually learns something new while retrieving the fear memory.

This finding supports the evidence of cognitive behavioral therapy, as this therapy teaches us new ways of responding and reacting to different anxiety situations, so we can learn new ways of interpreting them and therefore reacting to them.  By changing our reactions, we are changing our behaviors, which makes permanent results in brain circuitry!

Published 5/23/2013

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