Stories tagged fear


Me and a thing: And what should I name this thing, I wonder?
Me and a thing: And what should I name this thing, I wonder?Courtesy JGordon
Hey Buzzketeers. I have to apologize—I understand that some of you set your watches and schedule your insulin injections by JGordon’s regular postings… and here I am, contributing nothing to the Buzz in, what, over a week? Yes, over a week.

So I’m sorry. I hope you all have support networks that helped you set your watches and administer insulin. I have some good excuses though. Seriously.

Excuse A: JGordon has been working through some personal issues. I think we’re all close enough now that I can elaborate on this a little bit. I mean, it’s complicated, of course, but the long and short of it is that my grandmother hit me in the head with a hammer. She’s way old, and can’t swing a hammer worth carp, but still… it’s more of a trust thing. Knowing that someone who loves you would smack you in the noggin with a claw hammer given the chance… It’s a lot to deal with, OK?

Excuse B: I’m on vacation, remember? (Sort of. Dealing with the hammer attack has made this feel a lot less like a vacation. Technically a vacation still, though.) It turns out that I’m in Hawaii, and it turns out that Hawaii has all sorts of interesting sciencey things. And it turns out that I have a little video camera with me. And while it turns out that I haven’t felt much like video taping my vacation, it also turns out that I can’t go very long without things getting a little sciencey. Quasi-sciencey, at least.

So let’s see… how do I get this thing to work… is this the right button?


Albino mouse
Albino mouseCourtesy Ikayama
What are you afraid of? Maybe spiders or heights, but your fear is probably only triggered by the sight of a spider or actually being somewhere high. Everybody experiences fear, but for some people, fearful memories can be triggered by harmless sounds. An example people are especially aware of these days is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where a person hearing a car backfiring might recall a battlefield trauma.

Researchers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children hope their recent findings could someday help people with PTSD. They erased the association between a fearful memory and a trigger sound in mice. So, in this case, the fearful memory was being given an electric shock and the trigger sound was an otherwise harmless tone. The scientists didn’t erase the memory, just the association with the tone.

Dr. Michael Salter, head of the Neurosciences & Mental Health program at the hospital explained:

You wouldn't want to completely get rid of all aspects of a memory. To help people with these kinds of post-traumatic stress disorders . . . you might just want to minimize the emotional association between the memory and the highly disruptive and negative emotions that people have in this context.

To erase the association between the tone and the fear in the mice, the scientists targeted the brain cells that store fearful memories. Specifically, they knocked out neurons in the amygdala that express the gene, CREB. By eliminating these neurons, they disrupted the formation of the fearful memory association.

To learn more about fear, visit “Goosebumps! The Science of Fear” exhibit at the Science Museum through May 3.


Oh, it will make sense: And you should be ashamed.
Oh, it will make sense: And you should be ashamed.Courtesy wwhyte1968
We’re stuck in a deadly cycle Buzzketeers! We need to separate, take some deep breaths, and shower. Well, I won’t shower, because I don’t bathe with water, but I’ll at least rub myself down with powdered bleach.

Ooooh, but how are we even supposed to get that far? I feel like we’re surrounded by spiders! Oh, this is weird. I am positively terrified.

How is this happening? Well, first we have to understand, Buzzketeers, that we have a connection, you and I. Sure, we’re separated by miles and computer monitors, but the fact remains: there’s a special bond between us. We’re so close that, against all the laws of nature, we are somehow able to smell each other. Open your nostrils and smell… y’all smell like cornnuts and Axe body spray, and I smell like powdered bleach, and… there’s something else… there it is: fear!

Someone in our Science Buzz hive lost their nerve, became afraid, and now the fear has infected the rest of us. It’s a literally horrifying feedback loop.

What’s that I hear? (If I can smell you, then naturally I can hear you too.) “That’s crazy talk, JGordon!”

Yeah, maybe some of it is crazy talk, but not all of it; new research shows that fear not only stinks, but it also may be contagious.

The methods used in the research, I think, are hilarious. (If, by the way, I seem less afraid now, it’s only because I medicated myself heavily over the course of the last two sentences. The fear is still there.) Researchers at Stony Brook University in New York taped absorbent pads to the armpits of 40 first-time skydivers, and collected the sweat they excreted during their jumps.

The researchers then took a second group of volunteers, wired their heads up to, like, brain monitoring machines (what—do I look like a scientist?), and had them breath in the skydiver’s sweat, along with some boring ol’ normal sweat.

The skydiver sweat provoked noticeably increased activity in the fear-centers of the volunteers’ brains (the amygdala and the hypothalamus). While similar studies done in the past have shown that people can often distinguished between calm sweat and stressed sweat, the volunteers in this study were not able to tell the sweat samples apart, nor were they even told the purpose of the experiment.

The results reinforce the idea that there may be “a biological component to human social dynamics”—that is, if one person is frightened (or similarly stressed), their body may give off chemical signals that affect the stress levels of other people nearby, even if these others aren’t directly exposed to whatever was causing the fear in the first place.

For example, one of you out there in Buzzspace is afraid, and it’s driving the rest of us up that wall. I’m doing better now, thanks to some powdered dolphin teeth (it’s tremendously calming for me, and most of the side effects fall on the dolphin itself). So who is it? What is it? Let me throw some stuff out there, see if I can get a response: Yeah, you’re going to need some fungicide for that… No, it wasn’t a dream—better not show face in the cafeteria for a while… Uh huh, your grandma totally knows. No hiding something like that from Gramgram… Yes, that’s poisonous to cats…

There! Did you guys smell that? Someone out there has either accidentally poisoned a cat, or has consumed cat poison, and doesn’t understand the term “a cat person.” Well cut it out! The cat is beyond your help. Or, in the latter case, you have nothing to worry about, unless the cat poison was arsenic, which is also people poison. Go take a shower and some dolphin teeth, because you’re giving us the willies.

That’s better. Back to the story. It has been speculated that research like this could be used for some sort of weapons technology (something that wouldn’t hurt you, but would just make you terrified), and it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that the study was funded by DARPA, the Pentagon’s military research wing. DARPA, however, has more or less stated, “that’s cool, but we’re not really into that.” (They’re more interesting in things like flaming death balls, maybe.) Scientists have pointed out, too, that it’s not necessarily enough to simply give someone a physiological cue to make them scared—a “fear smell” might prompt physical symptoms of fear in people, but they really need to actually be in a frightening situation to be scared-scared. That seems like a strange distinction, but there you go.


Take your time and think it through, guy: But don't worry about the MMR vaccine.
Take your time and think it through, guy: But don't worry about the MMR vaccine.Courtesy paul+photos=moody
Let’s be careful how we put our words together, everybody.

I mean, when I get dressed in the morning, I know that I want to get underwear, socks, pants, and at least one shirt onto my body. However, if I were to forgo all rules of dressing order and arrangement, I might give off the wrong message: i.e., I’m crazy, and possibly dangerous to be around.

Why would I take any less care with my precious, precious words?

Because I’m pretty lazy, I don’t generally read most (any) of the articles on science that I come across every day. Instead, I read only the headlines. Or, better yet, I have them read to me—that way I can rest my head on my desk while I’m taking in the news. It’s very important, then, that all headlines are clearly worded. Otherwise I could dictate a Science Buzz post that is even more factually inaccurate than my posts normally are. That’s dangerous territory.

Survey confirms parents’ fears, confusion over autism.”

I looked at that headline, saw the word “vaccine” in the body, and thought, “Oh, snap! Vaccines do cause autism?” Because, that’s what parents’ are afraid of, after all.

Nope. The existence of parents’ fear and confusion over autism is what has been confirmed here. The actual connection between vaccinations and autism remains non-existent.

A recent study found that a significant percentage of parents still believe that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine can cause autism, or are at least uncertain and fearful that such a connection does exist. This is despite the fact that scientists can establish no connection between early childhood vaccines and the development of autism.

The fear that early childhood vaccinations lead to an increased risk for autism originated from a 1998 study that linked autism to a particular mercury-based preservative in the MMR vaccine. It was later revealed that the study was based on bad research, and it was retracted by most of its authors and disowned by its publisher. In 2001, manufacturers of the MMR vaccine began removing the preservative from their vaccines anyway—and that’s probably not a bad thing, but it hasn’t led to any decrease in the occurrence of autism. And people are still worried about the vaccine anyway.

This confusion wouldn’t be such a big deal, except that the better-safe-than-sorry attitude towards not having children vaccinated has led to a resurgence in diseases that had essentially been eradicated in areas where the vaccine is available.

Science Buzz has had a lot of conversation on this subject already, and, if you’re interested, I’d recommend you check out some of the other posts on autism and vaccinations.

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has found a way for rats to overcome their fears by blocking their memories. This may lead to treatments for humans.


Sometimes it’s best to just let the door close.: Keeping your options open entails some very real costs--sometimes more than the option is worth.
Sometimes it’s best to just let the door close.: Keeping your options open entails some very real costs--sometimes more than the option is worth.Courtesy George Karamanis

“Keep your options open.” Sounds like good advice, right? Turns out, it has hidden costs.

Professors Dan Ariely and Jiwoong Shin at MIT ran an experiment to test rational behavior. Test subjects played a computer game. On the screen were three doors. If they clicked on a door, it opened. Click on it a second time, and a number would appear, and they would earn that much money. Click on a different door and it opens, but the first door closes. Some doors had higher average payoffs than others. The object of the game is to get as much money as you can in 100 total clicks. (You can play the game—without the money, sorry—here.)

Obviously, the winning strategy is to find the door that pays the best, and then keep clicking on it. But then the evil professors threw a curve. They presented a second version of the game, where the doors shrank and eventually disappeared if you didn’t click on them. Subjects would waste clicks keeping the lower-paying doors from disappearing. On average, they earned 15% less for the privilege of keeping their options open.

Ariely and Shin hypothesize that players kept the less-valuable doors open, even though it cost them money, to avoid the pain of losing the door forever. We all hate to lose things. But sometimes the cost of keeping them around is more than they are worth. The game is a good lesson in the value of just letting things go.


The stuff of nightmares: Just try and forget this, Cdk5 or no.    (image by Mute on
The stuff of nightmares: Just try and forget this, Cdk5 or no. (image by Mute on
If I were to mouth off to a champion kickboxer at a party, and then get kickboxed into stupefaction, a unique process would very likely be taking place in my brain. The horror that accompanies being repeatedly kicked in the face would become associated with the memory of the party as it formed in the hippocampus of my brain. It’s possible, then, that the next time I went to a party, even if it were kickboxer-free, I would be unable to separate the fear of that previous attack from the context of a party, and I’d just have to spend the evening in the car.

It can be extremely difficult to forget associated fears, to relearn that a certain situation is not threatening or harmful, so people who have been through very traumatic experiences can suffer severe psychological stress long after the event.

Researchers at MIT have recently discovered that an enzyme in the brain called Cdk5 seems to control the formation of memory-associated fears, and that the inhibition of Cdk5 can allow for these fears to be eliminated.

In order to study this association between Cdk5 and fear formation, a group of laboratory mice were brought to a party, and then each was beaten up by a kick boxer. Some of the mice-partiers then had their Cdk5 levels increased, and some had their Cdk5 activity inhibited. The former group had great difficulty forgetting the beating, and could not enjoy the next party they were brought to. The latter group, however, was able to quickly relearn that parties can be fun, just so long as all the kickboxers in attendance are being friendly.

Although brain chemistry is obviously not quite so simple as all that, scientists are hopeful that this research could eventually lead to the development of drugs to treat serious conditions, such as post traumatic stress disorder, or chronic panic attacks.

Sciencedaily’s article on the research.

Here at the Science Museum of Minnesota we just finished working on a exhibit about the science of fear called Goosebumps. On the exhibit website there is an interesting poll where you can vote for the scariest movie ever. I picked the Shining from their list what would you pick?


Non-problem: With only four fatal shark attacks recorded around the world last year, experts describe shark attacks as a "non-problem." What do you think? (photo by davecompton987)
Non-problem: With only four fatal shark attacks recorded around the world last year, experts describe shark attacks as a "non-problem." What do you think? (photo by davecompton987)
Now that Memorial Day is behind us, it’s on to summer and that can mean just one thing: lots of media attention about shark attacks.

But the most recent compilation of shark attack data shows that only four people worldwide died in 2006 from unprovoked shark attacks. A total of 58 people around the globe sustained injuries from sharks.

George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, not that the numbers may be lower than average, but still point out that sharks get a lot of bad press.

Shark attack fatalities actually were increasing in numbers in the late 20th Century, due largely in part to an increased number of people finding recreation in deep sea diving.

But recent numbers have dipped back down to what Burgess calls a “non-problem, a minor, minor thing.”

None of the fatalities happened off of U.S. waters. A total of 38 injuries happened in the U.S. last year.

So why do shark attack stories generate so much publicity? Personally, I think it’s another sign of our sensationalizing media. They know it’s an automatic story that’s going to generate attention and ratings. What do you think about the hype surrounding shark attacks?