Whether it’s to get over an irrational fear of spiders or a perfectly rational fear of jumping out of an airplane, the common advice is to face your fears head-on. If you do, the logic goes, you’ll find out they’re not so scary after all, and you may even learn to enjoy them. Of course, that’s not always the case — sometimes forcing someone to re-experience something traumatic just causes further trauma. With that risk, anyone offering the advice to “face your fears!” should be absolutely sure that it really can be helpful. Luckily, new neuroscience research is giving the practice a green light by demonstrating just what happens in your brain when you face your fears.
Scientists are still a little bit hazy on the nature of memories — how they form, how they’re stored, and how you recall them, specifically. For example, just last year, MIT scientists stumbled upon the fact that long-term memories form completely differently than we thought and Columbia University researchers found that the brain remembers events in the opposite order it experienced them.
It isn’t that surprising, then, that researchers from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) felt the need to find out how exactly the brain gets rid of traumatic memories when a person faces their fears. Facing one’s fears is the centerpiece of exposure therapy: the most effective treatment for easing fears and phobias, according to the Mayo Clinic. It involves gradual, repeated exposure to the source of your fear. If you’re afraid of spiders, for example, you might first talk about spiders, then look at pictures of spiders, then sit across a room from a spider, then get closer until you can actually touch the spider.
The researchers were working with two theories that might explain how exposure therapy actually works in the brain: On the one hand, it’s possible that the formation of a new, non-fearful memory (touching a spider and nothing going wrong) just quiets the old, fearful memory (ack! spiders!); on the other hand, it’s also possible that the old, fearful memory is actually rewritten to become the new, non-fearful memory.
For a study published last month in the journal Science, the EPFL researchers worked with a special type of mice that were engineered to automatically “tag” active brain cells with a specific molecule. That helped the scientists know where exactly their memories were being stored and what was happening to them. Then, they gave the mice a phobia: They put each mouse in a small box and then administered some mild electric shocks. Sure enough, when the researchers returned the mice to the box a few months later, they froze — a classic fear response. That memory of their former trauma caused the brain cells storing it to fire, labeling themselves in the process.
Next came the exposure therapy. The researchers kept returning the mice to the box without shocking them, and little by little, their fear response began to subside. And here’s the clincher: Every time they revisited the box, certain groups of brain cells fired, and the more closely those groups matched the original groups responsible for the fear memory, the faster the mice became unafraid. In fact, when the researchers gave the mice a chemical to shut off the cells responsible for the fear memory, they didn’t respond as well to exposure therapy; on the contrary, when they boosted the activity of those cells, the mice got over the fear even faster. This shows that exposure therapy works by actually modifying the brain cells responsible for the original fear memory.
There are some limitations, including the fact that this memory-tagging technique isn’t failsafe — the new memories only partially overlapped with the old ones, so the old memories might not actually be rewritten and could still be under there somewhere. But it’s still powerful evidence that to extinguish your fears, you have to experience them again. It can be tempting to simply avoid the fear trigger, but the American Psychological Association says that could just make your problem bigger. “Although this avoidance might help reduce feelings of fear in the short term,” they write, “over the long term it can make the fear become even worse.” So face your fears. You’ll be glad you did.
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