London, Jan 18 (IANS) Our primitive response to fear, a trait we share with other animals, can override our conscious anticipation or assessment of danger.
These findings have implications for how anxiety disorders, such as phobias, are treated, suggests a new study by the University of Exeter.
Study participants sat in front of a screen, on which a coloured shape sometimes appeared. Half the time, the image was accompanied by a mild electric shock. For the rest of the time, the image appeared but no shock was given, reports the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behaviour Processes.
During the trial, they were asked to rate whether or not they expected a shock to be given and their ‘skin conductance’ was monitored. This technique, in simple words, gives us a reading of a person’s emotional state, according to an Exeter statement.
Following a series of shocks accompanying the image, their physical responses to the next image shown suggested they were more likely to expect another shock, but that they were less likely to expect a shock after a run of no-shock trials.
This pattern of responding is consistent with ‘associative learning’ — associating a visual cue with a significant event, a phenomenon that is well known in animals.
Previously it has been thought that when using this type of procedure, humans respond differently from animals because of conscious reasoning. The findings suggest that despite our sophisticated mental capabilities, our responses are actually driven by these more primitive processes when in danger.
Ian McLaren, professor at Exeter who led the study, said: “This research clearly shows that in these circumstances, our reaction to a fear-provoking stimulus depends on a primitive response caused by associative learning. This is something we share with other animals.”