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Scientists Use Tarantulas to Explore Human Fear
Date:11/9/2010

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Nov. 9 (HealthDay News) -- An experiment using humans, video footage of tarantulas and brain scans sheds new light on the many ways your mind responds to perceived danger.

"When we encounter fear, multiple systems in the brain are acting to help you survive. These systems are monitoring the movements of the threat, detecting surprises and calculating how close the threat is to you. Basically, your brain is multitasking and evaluating the best possible way to escape the danger," explained study author Dean Mobbs, a neuroscience researcher at MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Fear, of course, is a deeply primitive human emotion. "We now know that fear is not in one place in the brain, but is represented in many different areas that are highly interconnected," Mobbs said. "Different types of fear can tap into many of the same parts of the brain's fear network, from fear of taking an exam to fear of meeting a bear in the woods."

But there's more to figure out about how the process works. In the new study, Mobbs and colleagues sought to gain more insight into how the brain handles one kind of fear in particular -- the fear of spiders.

"The U.K. has one of the highest amount of spider phobics in the world. This is despite the fact that we have no deadly spiders in the U.K.," Mobbs explained. "Presumably, we learn from others or the media that spiders are scary, yet because we don't encounter them, we cannot habituate to them. Thus, our fears persist."

Mobbs has a personal motivation, too: "I mainly used spiders because I have a slight fear of them."

In the study, which appears in this week's online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers placed 20 participants in functional-MRI machines. The subjects watched videos that appeared to show tarantulas being placed near their fe
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