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Best way to face your fears may be subconsciously

"Counter-intuitively, our study showed that the brain is better able to process feared stimuli when they are presented without conscious awareness," said researcher Paul Siegel.

By Brooks Hays
The brain can better moderate fear response when phobic images are experience unconsciously. Photo by Steve Bower/Shutterstock
The brain can better moderate fear response when phobic images are experience unconsciously. Photo by Steve Bower/Shutterstock

Feb. 6 (UPI) -- New research suggests the brain can process phobic images and control fear response when they are received unconsciously.

When researchers showed a group of female young adults short slides of spiders -- spliced between images of flowers -- fear responses were subdued.

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"Although we expected -- and observed -- activation of the neural regions that process fear," Dr. Bradley S. Peterson, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children's Hospital Los Angeles, said in a news release. "We also found activation in regions that regulate the emotional and behavioral responses to fear -- reducing the conscious experience of fear."

The process of splicing target images between non-target images is called backward masking. The flower images, shown for longer periods of time, mask the spider images, shown only briefly. The viewers don't consciously perceive the phobic image, but the brain does.

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The brief spider images triggered parts of the brain linked with immediate fear response, but they also triggered parts of the brain active in the regulation of fear.

When image of spiders were shown for longer periods of time and consciously received, the immediate fear responses was greater, while fear regulation regions were deactivated.

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"Counter-intuitively, our study showed that the brain is better able to process feared stimuli when they are presented without conscious awareness," said Paul Siegel, an associate professor of psychology at Purchase College of the State University of New York. "Our findings suggest that phobic people may be better prepared to face their fears if at first they are not consciously aware that they've faced them."

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Researchers believe their findings -- published in the journal Human Brain Mapping -- could be used to improve treatment for anxiety disorders among children and adolescents.

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