Mind spider

Published on October 22nd, 2012 | by No Artificial

How Fear Alters Our Perception

Fear can alter even primary aspects of how we perceive the world around us.

That snake coming towards you may be further away than it seems to be.

According to a new study published in Current Biology, fear can skew our perception of approaching objects, causing us to miscalculate the distance of a threatening one.

“Our results show that emotion and perception are not fully dissociable in the mind,” states Emory psychologist Stella Lourenco, co-author of the study. “Fear can alter even basic aspects of how we perceive the world around us. This has clear implications for understanding clinical phobias.”

Lourenco conducted the study with Matthew Longo, a psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London.

People typically have quite well developed sense for when objects heading towards them will make contact, including a split-second cushion for avoiding or blocking the subject, if needed.

The researchers arrange an experiment to analyze the effect of fear on the accuracy of that skill.

Study contributors made time-to-collision judgments of images on a computer screen. The images grown in size over one second before disappearing, to reproduce “looming,” an optical pattern used intuitively to determine collision time. The research participants were told to evaluate when each of the visual stimulating elements on the computer screen would have collided with them by pushing
a button.

The participants tended to underestimate the impact time for images of frightening objects, such as
a snake or spider, as compared to non-frightening images, such as a rabbit or butterfly.

The final results challenge the conventional perspective of looming, as a strictly optical cue to object approach. “We’re showing that what the object is affects how we perceive looming. If we’re afraid of something, we perceive it as making contact sooner,” Matthew Longo explains.

“Even more striking,” Lourenco adds, “it is possible to predict how much a participant will underestimate the collision time of an object by assessing the amount of fear they have for that object. The more fearful someone reported feeling of spiders, for example, the more they underestimated time-to-collision for a looming spider. That makes adaptive sense: If an object is dangerous, it’s better to swerve a half-second too soon than a half-second too late.”

The study’s researchers observe that it’s unclear whether fear of an object makes the subject appear to travel faster, or whether that fear makes the person increase his or her sense of personal space, which is generally about an arm’s length away.

“We’d like to distinguish between these two possibilities in future research. Doing so will allow us to shed insight on the mechanics of basic aspects of spatial perception and the mechanisms underlying particular phobias,” Stella Lourenco states.

Emory University
Current Biology

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