• Robb G. Best

In a Heartbeat

Some amount of fear is healthy. As a 2015 episode of NPR’s Invisibilia illustrates, that rare person born with no fear suffers some unique setbacks. Still, given the millions of people around the world with anxiety disorders and/or post-traumatic stress disorders, it’s easy to see the ways that experiencing too much fear, or experiencing it at the wrong times, can adversely affect day to day life.

That’s where the Cardiac Control for Fear in Brain (CCFB) studies come in. Led by Professor Sarah Garfinkel of the University of Sussex, in Brighton, UK, the goals are lofty. “Imagine what might be possible if you can turn fear on and off,” begins their fact sheet on the website for the European Research Council.

The concept behind CCFB is rooted in research demonstrating that the brain is better at appropriately processing “fear stimuli” just after the heart has made a beat. This can be harnessed in, for example, exposure therapy, which works best when the fear response is maximized in a safe environment. In other words, if a person with a fear of dogs is undergoing exposure therapy, confronting them with an image of a dog during the patient’s heartbeat will produce better results.

In a recent trial, Professor Garfinkel’s team applied the principle to people suffering arachnophobia by showing patients images of spiders in sync with the person’s heartbeat. The arachnophobes experienced noticeable results after just four half-hour sessions—a considerably shorter period than it would take to make similar progress in traditional exposure therapy.

These ideas also could potentially have an impact far greater than simply helping individuals cope with phobias. Consider the role of fear when it comes to police deciding whether to shoot a suspect. Many U.S. news stories have demonstrated cases in which officers shot unarmed African American men, seemingly swayed by fear induced by racial bias. This has wide-reaching consequences; a study in Britain’s prominent medical journal The Lancet found that such shootings negatively affect the mental health of the statewide African American population.

Professor Garfinkel’s team assembled a group of white subjects and asked them to make split-second decisions—to shoot or not to shoot—based on images of black or white people, each holding either a gun or a cell phone. The results showed that the white people were more likely to “shoot” an unarmed black person if that image coincided with a heartbeat.

It is difficult to know how to apply these findings to the emotionally fraught world of on-duty police officers, and many activists would probably argue that racial sensitivity training makes for a better long-term investment, with greater overall impact on community health. Still, the link between fearful thoughts and beating hearts is a fascinating one, and one that may yet produce surprising—and helpful--findings.

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