Originally found on https://www.newscientist.com/article/2113507-unconscious-brain-training-beats-phobias-without-the-stress/
No need to face your fears, they could be made to just melt away. A new way of curing phobias can nudge people into unconsciously thinking about their fears, helping them to unlearn their associations of fear in a stress-free way.
Phobias are usually treated with “exposure therapy”, which involves showing someone the thing they are frightened of while in a safe environment, to teach them that they don’t need to be scared. But many people find it so stressful that they drop out – or are too scared to sign up in the first place.
“We thought if we can do it unconsciously, there’s no unpleasantness,” says Hakwan Lau of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Lau’s team are using software that can be trained to identify what people are looking at or imagining as they lie in fMRI brain scanners. This software can even identify things that someone is thinking about unconsciously, by focussing on activity in the visual cortex – the region that processes raw visual data from our eyes.
Don’t think of a spider
Using this, the team has found a way to make people think about scary things without realizing. The group first recorded the patterns of brain activity that volunteers had when shown a variety of 40 images – including some common subjects of phobias, such as spiders, snakes and dogs. They then set the team a task to do while in a fMRI brain scanner, with the promise of earning a cash reward.
Whenever unconscious patterns of activity in a person’s visual cortex matched that of a scary picture, that person was given positive feedback and a small cash reward. This “neurofeedback” training encouraged them to think about the scary thing even more, but unconsciously. “They had no clue what they were doing. They think they’re doing a mental exercise to get money,” says Lau.
To see if this unconscious exposure technique can reduce phobia-related stress, the team first tried it on people whom they had conditioned to be scared of a pattern of colored lines by giving them small electric shocks whenever they saw that pattern. After about 3 hours of neurofeedback training, their fear of the lines was much reduced.
Next, the team tried naturally occurring fears. The team asked 30 people to choose two pictures they found most scary from the set of 40 images. After doing neurofeedback training on the subject of one of the two pictures – for example, a dog – the participants sweated less when they were shown that picture, and had reduced activity in their amygdalae, the brain’s fear centers.
There was no such change when volunteers were tested on the scary picture for which they hadn’t had neurofeedback training. These results were presented at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego last week.
Influencing the unconscious
The team plans to go back to the study participants in three months and ask them if they still feel scared of their phobia animals. Only then will we know if this approach works, says Joe leDoux of New York University. “Self-reporting of fear is the gold standard for whether a person has been successfully treated or not.”
If it works, it might help with other forms of fear-based conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. “We are indirectly influencing the unconscious mind,” says Lau. This seems similar to what Freudian-school psychoanalysts aim to do, he adds.
LeDoux is also investigating unconscious exposure therapy by showing people pictures of their phobias for a fraction of a second – so fast they only register subliminally. He thinks both approaches would need to be followed up with talking therapies to teach people strategies to change their conscious beliefs – but this should be easier once unconscious fear reactions have been reduced.
Written by Clare Wilson
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