Understanding fear means correctly defining fear itself, study concludes

February 4, 2014, New York University

Understanding and properly studying fear is partly a matter of correctly defining fear itself, New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux writes in a new essay published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. His analysis points to ways research can be better geared to address a range of fear-related afflictions, such as post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and commonly experienced phobias.

Much of the current confusion in neuroscience research on stems from the conflation of two separate phenomena that are both labeled "fear": behavioral and physiological fear responses elicited by threats, such as a snake or a mugger, and conscious feelings of fear, which occur in the same situation but are controlled by a different brain system.

"The problem is not the terms but the way we use them," LeDoux writes. "Specifically, problems arise when we conflate terms that refer to conscious experiences with those that refer to the processing of stimuli and control of responses and assume that the brain mechanisms that underlie the two kinds of processes are the same."

The fundamental shortcoming of this confusion, LeDoux observes, is rampant. Findings about the brain circuits that control the behavioral and are assumed to explain how humans experience fear.

"People with anxiety disorders are bothered by the fear and anxiety that they consciously experience," LeDoux says in an accompanying published interview with PNAS. "If we claim we are studying human feelings of fear or anxiety when we measure defense responses, we are giving a false impression. This has significant implications for psychiatry that should be more clearly specified.

"For example, a number of treatments for people with fear and are the result of animal work. These treatments change the way implicit systems operate and only indirectly affect conscious feelings. It may sound subtle, but the difference is important. These findings from animal studies are more relevant to behaviorally based therapies than to talk therapies."

In the PNAS essay, LeDoux calls for greater precision in how we define fear in order to enhance existing scholarship, which should lead to the creation of superior remedies.

"I am not suggesting that we banish the 'F' word from our scientific vocabulary and research," he concludes. "On the contrary, I think that we need to come to terms with fear because the conscious feeling of fear is a key part of human experience and an important factor in psychopathology.

"Neither am I suggesting that animal research is irrelevant to understanding human conscious feelings of fear. However, we need a conception that allows us to understand how non-conscious processes in other species contribute to conscious fear in humans."

Explore further: What can animals' survival instincts tell us about understanding human emotion?

More information: Coming to terms with fear, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1400335111

Related Stories

What can animals' survival instincts tell us about understanding human emotion?

February 22, 2012
Can animals' survival instincts shed additional light on what we know about human emotion? New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux poses this question in outlining a pioneering theory, drawn from two decades of research, ...

Where and how are fear-related behaviors and anxiety disorders controlled?

November 21, 2013
Using an approach combining in vivo recordings and optogenetic manipulations in mice, the researchers succeeded in showing that the inhibition of parvalbumin-expressing prefrontal interneurons triggers a chain reaction resulting ...

Neuroscientists determine how treatment for anxiety disorders silences fear neurons

November 1, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Excessive fear can develop after a traumatic experience, leading to anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias. During exposure therapy, an effective and common treatment for anxiety ...

Sniffing out danger: Scientists say fearful memories can trigger heightened sense of smell

December 12, 2013
Most people – including scientists – assumed we can't just sniff out danger.

Medial prefrontal cortex linked to fear response

December 4, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—In a new paper published in the current issue of Neuron, Harvard Medical School researchers at McLean Hospital report that increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain is linked to decreased ...

Memory appears susceptible to eradication of fear responses

February 18, 2013
Fear responses can only be erased when people learn something new while retrieving the fear memory. This is the conclusion of a study conducted by scientists from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and published in the leading ...

Recommended for you

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

Neuroscientists suggest a model for how we gain volitional control of what we hold in our minds

January 16, 2018
Working memory is a sort of "mental sketchpad" that allows you to accomplish everyday tasks such as calling in your hungry family's takeout order and finding the bathroom you were just told "will be the third door on the ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.