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Stanford University School of Medicine

Seeing is believing (unfortunately): A project designed to study visually induced fear

Back in Wisconsin, where I grew up, there was a lot to be afraid of. We feared ice. Cow dung. Running out of cheese. Losing a Big Ten football game (God forbid). Shoveling snow. Running out of beer. The return of the woolly mammoth.

But sharks? Not that much, actually. The American Midwest is basically shark-free. Even here in California, where I live now, stay ashore and you should be just fine. Consequently, up until a couple of months ago I'd never been approached by a shark, never been insulted or even annoyed by a shark, much less assaulted by one.

That all changed suddenly sometime in the spring of this year, when I found myself facing a shark coming straight at me until it was so close I could count its teeth.

Now was I afraid of sharks? Here's my story, as told in my article in the current issue of our magazine, Stanford Medicine:

I stood, exposed, at the prow of an underwater vessel and watched a great white shark come toward me, its rows of gleaming, pointy teeth headed for my throat. The shark got within about 2 feet of me, hung a U and smoothly swam away. Another approached. I was stuck in the middle of a whole school of them.

Was I afraid? Not as much as you might think, for a couple of reasons: First: I knew that a few of the other divers were way more exposed than I was. I wouldn't have wanted to be in their fins.

Second, and far more reassuring: I knew that none of this was real. It was a virtual-reality hook-up, and I was a human guinea pig in an experiment designed to freak people out, the better to understand vision-induced fear.

My experience was part of a project led by Stanford neurobiologist Andrew Huberman, PhD, who wants to learn more about fear by identifying the brain circuitry underlying it and pinpointing the component circuits' settings during episodes of fear.  Having spent the last 20 years or so studying the neurobiology of vision, Huberman is taking a mainly visual approach, with the help of a virtual-reality chamber of horrors his team created from scratch.

What is fear, anyway? Oh, sure, we all know it when we feel it: Our heartbeat speeds up, our limbs tingle, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, our muscles pulse with multiples of their normal strength and time seems to slow down, yadayada.

But fear's more than a mere package of peripheral bodily signals, Huberman says. As I describe in my article, titled "The Fearful Eye: Using Virtual Reality to Hack Fright":

It's a state of mind as well, a holding pattern designed to maintain heightened arousal while you figure out what to do next. To neuroscientists that means it's also a state of the brain, shaped by eons of evolutionary trial and error during which the punishment for failure to respond appropriately and quickly was often death, not to mention fewer viable offspring. ... In the long run, Huberman ... hopes to help people gain more control over irrational fear, a response that can get tripped off so often or so severely it hampers healthy coping.

To study fear, one must induce it. This, Huberman's team is doing -- and you can read all about it in my article.

Or, if you prefer, click on the video above and watch me dueling with a giant hairy tarantula only I can see.

Previously: Long-distance eye-brain connections, partial vision restored for first time ever in a mammal, Thousands of queries, added funds fuel pushoff from successful Stanford vision-restoration study and The quest to restore sight at Stanford
Video by Mark Hanlon; thumbnail photo of Andrew Huberman by Brian Smale (shark photograph by Michael Muller)

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