Fears are formed when we associate things with a strong, negative emotional response. Now, a team of scientists have developed a technique that lets them erase new emotional memories from the human brain — which could make it possible to wipe out your fears for good.
When the brain learns something, a memory is created through a process called consolidation: at first the memory is unstable, but proteins form in the brain to fix it in place. By disrupting the way that process is carried out, it's possible to affect the content of a memory. This new study, published in Science by researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden, shows that it's possible to erase emotional memories by interrupting consolidation processes in the brain.
The team of researchers showed participants neutral images — pictures of landscapes, everyday objects, those kinds of things — but simultaneously administered electric shocks. Basically, they were creating a "fear memory" by associating image content with pain. Shown the picture again some time later, the participants, unsurprisingly, exhibit some level of fear.
However, the team attempted to disrupt the consolidation stage in half the participants, by showing them the image repeatably — this time without any shock — during the period of time over which the brain fixes the memory in place. The results show that the groups whose memory-making process was disrupted weren't scared when they saw the image again: in other words, the scientists were able to wipe the fear memory.
While it's not a finding you can necessarily use in everyday life, the researchers are confident that they can develop the finding so it can be used in the treatment of anxiety issues like phobias, post-traumatic stress, and panic attacks. As a grown man with a long-standing fear of dogs, to me this sounds like great news. [Science via Uppsala]