There’s plenty of psychological research to back up the idea that facing a phobia can be the best way to get over it. But all the evidence in the world doesn’t necessarily make it easier to cozy up to, say, the spider that causes your pulse to quicken.
Researchers may have found something that helps: a computer program that very quickly flashes images of whatever it is that freaks you out. While the images go by so fast that you don’t consciously recognize what you’re seeing, your brain processes the pictures and becomes slightly less afraid.
Researchers first tested the treatment on people who feared spiders and people with social anxieties. In both cases, individuals reported being less afraid and more able to face their fears afterward. The people who trembled at spiders could more easily approach a live tarantula and those with social anxieties were less likely to avoid threatening facial expressions.
Now a new study from the same researchers used MRI scans to look at how the treatment ― which they call “very brief exposure” or VBE ― actually affects the brain.
The brain scans showed that even though people could not consciously recognize the flashing images, the part of the brain that controls their response to fear was actively processing the images. In other words, their subconscious was handling what frightened them, without actually frightening them.
“When people were less aware of the pictures, their brains processed [them] significantly more,” said study author Paul Siegel, associate professor of psychology at Purchase College of the State University of New York. Siegel collaborated with Dr. Bradley Peterson, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, on the study.
The researchers are excited about the VBE technique because it may be able to help people with a wide range of fears, perhaps even post-traumatic stress disorder, Siegel said.
“As long as you can take a good picture that captures someone’s fears, you can use this technique.”
One of the challenges in treating people with PTSD is that many of them have endured such severe trauma that they can’t bear the idea of consciously facing those images again and they chose to avoid treatment. VBE won’t necessarily cure those individuals, Siegel said.
“But it may reduce fear enough to help [those individuals] enough to get other treatment,” he said.
“As long as you can take a good picture that captures someone’s fears,” Siegel said, “you can use this technique.”
You don’t recognize your fear but your brain does
The latest study tested the technique on 21 women who reported being afraid of spiders and also met psychiatric diagnostic criteria for a phobia of spiders. The researchers then observed what happened when the women were asked to gradually approach a live tarantula. (The study also included 21 women who were not afraid of spiders as a control group.)
The researchers used only women in this study to ensure that gender differences did not skew the results, Siegel said. The brains of women work differently than those of men, physiologically speaking, he explained ― “particularly with respect to emotion and how the brain processes emotion.”
The women were placed in an MRI scanner and shown a series of photos of spiders. Each spider picture was flashed for just 0.03 seconds and then immediately alternated with an image of a series of X’s. This “masking image” prevented the subjects from consciously recognizing the spiders.
In a second phase of the experiment, the photos were shown long enough so that the women could clearly recognize what the images depicted.
When a subject viewed the flashing images of the spiders, there was more activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain ― the part known to be involved in controlling our responses to what we fear, Siegel explained. With presumably greater control of her emotions, the woman could more easily face her fear.
But when the images of the spiders were shown slowly enough for the women to recognize the creepy creatures, activity in that area of the brain that controls fear responses slowed down.
“This suggests that phobic people may be better able to confront their fear if at first they are not consciously aware that they have faced them,” Siegel said.
After coming out of the MRI scanners, the women did not report experiencing more fear during the treatment, when the images were flashed very quickly. Some said it was even relaxing. But they did report feeling afraid when the images were shown slowly enough to be recognizable.
The researchers repeated the experiment with a third series of photos ― this time with images of flowers that flashed very quickly, interspersed with the masking images. On average, the women’s fear ratings ― as they reported and as their brain activity recorded by the MRI showed ― were similar whether the rapidly flashing images were spiders or flowers. Which is to say, the women weren’t particularly afraid during the VBE treatment.
It’s not that the treatment cures you of the fear, Siegel made very clear. “But it appears to treat a certain unconscious dimension of the fear that will make it easier for you to confront what you’re actually afraid of,” he said.
Additional studies are currently in the works to test the treatment in people with PTSD, social anxiety and other fears.
CORRECTION: It is the prefrontal cortex, not the subcortical regions, of the brain that is involved in controlling fear. The story has also been updated to note that Dr. Bradley Peterson, of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the Keck School of Medicine, co-authored the study.
Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.