Study traces path of fear through brain
After mapping brain activity in people shown threatening images, scientists at the University of Texas say they have a clearer idea of how the brain processes fear. Researchers have known that the brain prioritizes threatening information over other cognitive processes, but the new research suggests how and why this might happen.
The study was conducted with 26 adults (19 female, 7 male), ages 19 to 30, who were shown a series of photos – some were threatening images, some were pleasant and others were scrambled or unrecognizable. The participants were asked to push a button when they thought they saw a real picture and another button for a scrambled image, all while wearing an electroencephalography (EEG) cap.
The findings indicated that when participants were shown threatening images, activity increased first in the area of the brain where visual information is processed, followed by an increase in activity in the brain area where higher mental functions are processed, such as thinking and decision-making. Meanwhile, the wave pattern associated with motor behavior, tied to the impulse to flee, remained constantly active when viewing the threatening pictures.
The researchers hope the findings will help in the development of more specialized disorders, such as PTSD.