Connected \\ October 25, 2017
Joe Ledoux explains fear
Q: Why is the unknown and the imagined more terrifying and exciting than reality?
A: The human brain's greatest asset and flaw is its ability to anticipate the future. This allows us to do amazing things, but also allows us to worry. Emily Dickinson was supposedly a very fearful and anxious person. In her case, she found the worry to be more disruptive than the actual eventuality. Personally, I always found horror films where the bad stuff was all the anticipation much more terrifying than the current approach where it all ends up in your face.
Q: In your work, you mention the possibility to change a memory every time it is recalled. With this in mind, could one place fear into previously benign memory? If so, is it safe to experiment with this idea? How do we then reinterpret what is real and what was constructed?
Courtesy The Center for Neural Science at New York University
A: Every memory is in fact a kind of reconstruction based on bits and pieces of the experience that are stored and retrieved. This allows us to update memories in light of new experiences. But the price for that advantage is that sometimes the memory changes in ways that are unfaithful to the original experience. And yes, a memory of something benign can become bad; if you meet someone and they are perfectly nice, but then you find out some disturbing thing about their past, you may come to treat them with caution later.
Q: Is there a way to “hack” your brain to overcome or drive out certain fears?
A: We are trying to find tricks like this. The recoding of memory after retrieval is an example. Other things are in the works. But most of this is not ready for prime time. Probably the best thing that we can all do is find ways to gradually acclimate to bad things. This is how exposure therapy works. For little things you don't need a therapist. You can self expose. But if you are really having a problem, professional help is best.
Unleash your own fearful imagery at the poster creation station the It's Alive! exhibition. Photo credit Bob Packert/PEM
Q: Emotions like fear and have distinct soundtracks. How does your band The Amygdaloids use your additional knowledge about how the brain perceives emotion to its advantage?