The problem with exposure therapy — in which you confront the thing you’re anxious about, head-on and repeatedly, until it no longer seems threatening — is that before it starts to work, it’s unpleasant at best, traumatic at worst. Sure, maybe you’re no longer afraid of spiders after a while, but you still had to suffer through the terror of letting one walk around on your hand first. The means, even if they’re justified by the end, can nevertheless be kind of awful.
But in a study recently published in the journal Nature Human Behavior and highlighted by Christian Jarrett in BPS Research Digest, a team of researchers may have hit on an alternative. The strategy, which the authors named “neurofeedback,” is a sort of subconscious exposure therapy, a way of erasing fears from the brain without having to use whatever it is that triggers those fears.
The study authors used a series of electric shocks to create a new fear memory in the minds of their subjects, zapping the participants whenever they saw one of two specific patterns on a screen. After doing this a few times, the researchers measured the subjects’ skin sweat whenever they saw the patterns, as a way of confirming that they truly did have an aversion to the images; once the fear was in place, they also scanned their brains as they viewed them, to see what neurological activity the sight provoked.
Afterward, the researchers taught their subjects a game, showing them a disc on a screen and telling them that a certain pattern of brain activity on their end would make the disc bigger; if they could figure out what that activity was and then make it happen, they would win a reward. The catch: The authors, who could see what was happening in the participants’ brains, didn’t tell them that the key to making the disc grow was connected to the image they had just learned to fear. “In other words, whenever the participants’ brains showed non-conscious neural activity related to the target feared pattern — which they did occasionally — the disc grew, and they were rewarded with money,” Jarrett explained:
During the training, the participants showed no experience of fear, either subjectively or based on their electrodermal response (the sweatiness of their skin), suggesting the fear-related brain activity was entirely non-conscious. And quizzed after the training, it was clear the participants had no idea what had been going on at a subconscious level … while the researchers were busy training the participants’ brains to like one of the patterns that they’d previously learned to fear, the participants themselves were blissfully ignorant.
The strategy had the intended effect: When they later showed their subjects the same fearsome images, their fear response was much weaker than it had been the first time around — suggesting, they wrote, that “the present results hopefully represent an initial step towards a potential new avenue for treatment” — one that soothes patients’ anxieties without traumatizing them first.