BBC News informs us that “Researchers find fear link to Spider-Man”, while the Daily Express breathlessly informs us “just as Spider-Man’s instincts gave him the edge over his arch enemy the Green Goblin… researchers have now found we all have ‘spidey sense’ like the web-slinging superhero”.
The so-called ‘spidey sense’ is the eponymous superhero’s ability to predict when he is in danger.
The headlines are based on a recent experiment assessing whether humans had an ability to respond to threats while not necessarily being consciously aware of them.
The news is based on a study in which two different ‘fearful’ faces were shown to people, but visible to only one of their eyes. When one of these two faces was shown, the people involved were given a small electric shock. However, in half of the people, distracting images were shown at the same time to their other eye to suppress their awareness of the fearful face images.
Researchers assessed the people’s fear response by measuring the sweat on their fingertips.
Both groups of people (those who were and weren’t shown distracting images), gave a ‘fear’ response whenever they were shown the face that had been associated with previous electric shocks. This, the researchers say, suggests that they still respond even when not ‘consciously aware’ of a threat.
This small study may provide further scientific insights around conscious and non-conscious responses to threats. But the claimed connection between this research and humans having some type of ‘sixth sense for danger’ is as slender as a spider’s thread.
This was a highly experimental scenario and it is not clear if these findings would be representative of the general population in real-life fear situations.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Edinburgh and New York University and was funded by the International Brain Research Foundation and other research grants.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Current Biology.
BBC News and the Daily Express both reported ‘Spider-Man related headlines’ most likely due to one of the researchers likening the research findings to Spider-Man’s intuition for fear. Once past the frankly silly headlines, the study was reported reasonably accurately in both papers. Although the BBC's claims that the research could lead to new treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders seems highly speculative at this time.
What kind of research was this?
This was an experimental laboratory study aiming to investigate how people react to danger by investigating conscious and non-conscious fear conditioning. The researchers say that people give a physiological response to a threat (i.e. their automatic nervous system responds) when a visual stimulus accompanies the threat, but it is not known whether people would give the same fearful response to a threat when not given a visual stimulus – that is when they were ‘not conscious’ of the threat.
An experiment is any study in which the conditions are under the direct control of the researcher. This usually involves giving a group of people an intervention that would not have occurred naturally. Experiments are often used to test the effects of an intervention in people and often involve comparison with a group who do not get the intervention (controls). However, the findings of experimental studies may not always reflect what would happen in the real-life situation.
What did the research involve?
The researchers recruited to their study 38 healthy volunteers with an average age of 24. Participants were divided into two groups designed to represent being either consciously ‘aware’ or ‘unaware’ of the threat.
The ‘aware’ group was presented with pictures of a male or female fearful face displayed on a computer screen. One of these faces was accompanied by a shock on 50% of its presentations, while the other face never was. The fearful image that accompanied the shock was intended to represent a ‘conditioned’ stimulus, where people would expect to experience a shock every time they were shown that particular face.
The ‘unaware’ group was presented with the same male or female fearful images shown through only one eye, while the other eye was distracted with colourful and bright images dominating their perspective. They again received an electrical shock on 50% of presentations of one of the two faces. This meant that the threat of the electrical shock should be ‘unconditioned’, as by distracting them with the bright images they should not be able to associate a particular face with the electric shock.
Each person’s fear response was then calculated by measuring the amount of sweat on the person’s fingertips. Participants were also asked to differentiate whether they had been shown the male or female face and were asked to rate their confidence in this answer from 1 (guess) to 3 (not sure).
What were the basic results?
The main results of this study were that:
- In both groups there was a significantly greater fear response as measured by the sweat on their fingertips every time they were shown the face that was sometimes accompanied by a shock.
- Participants in the ‘aware’ group took longer to learn to be afraid of the particular face, but their fear learning increased over time – that is, over successive tests they gave a greater fear response every time they saw the face that was sometimes accompanied by the shock.
- Participants who were considered to be ‘unaware’ of the threat of danger (because they were seeing the distracting image) still gave a fear response each time they were shown the face that was sometimes accompanied by the shock, but their fear learning was quick to be forgotten – that is, they gave the greatest fear response on early occasions of seeing the face but less response in subsequent tests.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers conclude that being aware of a threat may lessen initial fear responses and that being unaware of a threat may initially heighten the fear response.
One of the researchers, Dr David Carmel of the University of Edinburgh, says: “Like Spider-Man, it turns out that people can become afraid of something, or can sense that something is dangerous, without ever being aware of what that thing is.” He went on to say: “What is interesting is we’ve found that subconscious learning happens more quickly, but is also forgotten more quickly.”
In addition, Dr Carmel said the results will help anxiety sufferers face their fears head on and anticipate problems before they happen.
The study found that people in the ‘consciously unaware’ group who had bright images distracting them from which of the faces was sometimes accompanied by a shock, still gave a ‘fear’ response each time they were shown this face. This suggests that they are still responding to a threat even when they are not ‘consciously aware’ that there is one.
This small study may further provide scientific understanding around conscious and non-conscious fear conditioning. However, this highly experimental scenario means that it is difficult to draw more conclusions, and it is not clear if these findings would be representative of the general population in real-life fear situations.