If you have a serious fear and you ask a friend or a trained psychologist for advice they'll probably tell you the same thing -- force yourself to face your fear. In this sort of "exposure therapy," someone who was terrified of dogs, say, would be slowly habituated to canine companionship by first imagining a dog, then viewing a dog at a distance, then stepping a bit closer, right up until they're happily petting neighborhood pooches.

This is the standard approach to eliminating fears, and science suggests it's pretty effective. But if you're the one with suffering from some kind of terror it's also bound to be pretty unpleasant. Now new research (written up recently on the British Psychological Society Research Digest Blog) may have uncovered a fresh approach to eliminating fear that's a whole lot more comfortable.

The first step to a phobia-erasing machine?

The study is very preliminary but it sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. For the research, the a team of Japanese neuroscientists recruited 17 hardy volunteers who were willing to be taught to fear a particular pair of color patterns by being mildly shocked every time they saw them. The scientists also scanned the subjects brains while they viewed these patterns to understand what brain regions were being activated.

Next, the research subjects were asked to play a "neurofeedback" game in which they were again wired to brain scanning equipment. This time though, their brain activity controlled a grey disk on a computer monitor. The volunteers were told they'd get a bit of money if they could think that grey disk into growing.

Unbeknownst to them, the only way they could do that was to recreate the same brain activation pattern they showed when confronted with one scary color pattern they'd been tormented with earlier. In essence, they had to recall their fear in order to win the cash. But the trick is they did this entirely without knowing that's what they were doing. It was all entirely subconscious.

For this reason, the participants felt no fear while playing the game -- they didn't recognize at any point that they were recalling the pattern linked with the electrical shocks and a scientific measure of fear (electrodermal response, AKA sweatiness) confirmed they really weren't afraid. Yet when the research team exposed them to the problem color pattern again their fear was much reduced -- as reduced as would have been expected has they undergone exposure therapy. (The second color pattern acted as a control, and the participants' response to it was unchanged by the game.)

A long way to go

See, I told you it sounded like science fiction. And indeed this technology is only in the earliest stages. It may yet prove to be a dead end for practical use. Imagining a dog (or any other real life phobia) is obviously much more complicated than imagining a color pattern, so mapping and replicating the brain activity associated with such a fear would be much more difficult.

Plus, scientists need to figure out what that distinctive pattern of brain activity is without scaring you silly with the very thing that terrifies you.

"Despite these challenges, the present results hopefully represent an initial step towards a potential new avenue for treatment," Ai Koizumi, who led the research, commented,