Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Free Will Takes Flight: How Our Brains Respond To An Approaching Menace

Date:
August 27, 2007
Source:
Wellcome Trust
Summary:
Scientists have identified for the first time how our brain's response changes the closer a threat gets. Using a "Pac Man"-like computer game where a volunteer is pursued by an artificial predator, the researchers showed that the fear response moves from the strategic areas of the brain towards more reactive responses as the artificial predator approaches.

Wellcome Trust scientists have identified for the first time how our brain's response changes the closer a threat gets. Using a "Pac Man"-like computer game where a volunteer is pursued by an artificial predator, the researchers showed that the fear response moves from the strategic areas of the brain towards more reactive responses as the artificial predator approaches.

When faced with a threat, such as a large bear, humans, like other animals, alter their behaviour depending on whether the threat is close or distant. This is because different defence mechanisms are needed depending on whether, for example, the bear is fifty feet away, when being aware of its presence may be enough, or five feet away, when we might need to fight or run away.

To investigate what happens in the brain in such a situation, researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, London, created a game where subjects were chased through a maze by an artificial predator -- if caught, they would receive a mild electric shock. The researchers then measured their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The results are published today in the journal Science.

When the artificial predator was in the distance, the researchers observed activity in lower parts of the prefrontal cortex just behind the eyebrows. Activity in this area -- known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex -- increases during anxiety and helps control strategies on how to respond to the threat.

However, as the predator moved closer, the brain activity shifted to a region of the brain responsible for more primitive behaviour, namely the periaqueductal grey. The periaqueductal grey is associated with quick-response survival mechanisms, which include fight, flight and freezing. This region is also associated with the body's natural pain killer, opioid analgesia, preparing the body to react to pain.

Dr Dean Mobbs from UCL, lead author on the study, says: "Without fear, animals would not react to threats. This is a poor survival strategy and makes it more likely that the animal will be eaten and not pass on its genes.

"The most efficient survival strategy will depend on the level of threat we perceive. This makes sense as sometimes being merely wary of a threat is enough, but at other times we need to react quickly. The closer a threat gets, the more impulsive your response will be -- in effect, the less free will you will have."

Although this natural defence mechanism is beneficial in evolutionary terms, Dr Mobbs believes that malfunctions in the system might help explain why some people suffer from anxiety disorders and panic attacks.

"When our defence mechanisms malfunction, this may result in an over-exaggeration of the threat, leading to increased anxiety and, in extreme cases, panic," says Dr Mobbs. "Although brain-imaging studies like ours cannot directly help to cure such disorders, they do improve our understanding of how the emotional system operates. This is the first step to helping people with anxiety-related disorders."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Wellcome Trust. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Wellcome Trust. "Free Will Takes Flight: How Our Brains Respond To An Approaching Menace." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 August 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070823141031.htm>.
Wellcome Trust. (2007, August 27). Free Will Takes Flight: How Our Brains Respond To An Approaching Menace. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 2, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070823141031.htm
Wellcome Trust. "Free Will Takes Flight: How Our Brains Respond To An Approaching Menace." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070823141031.htm (accessed October 2, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Pregnancy Spacing Could Have Big Impact On Autism Risks

Pregnancy Spacing Could Have Big Impact On Autism Risks

Newsy (Oct. 1, 2014) A new study says children born less than one year and more than five years after a sibling can have an increased risk for autism. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Stopping School Violence

Stopping School Violence

Ivanhoe (Oct. 1, 2014) A trauma doctor steps out of the hospital and into the classroom to teach kids how to calmly solve conflicts, avoiding a trip to the ER. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com
Pineal Cysts: Debilitating Pain

Pineal Cysts: Debilitating Pain

Ivanhoe (Oct. 1, 2014) A tiny cyst in the brain that can cause debilitating symptoms like chronic headaches and insomnia, and the doctor who performs the delicate surgery to remove them. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com
Burning Away Brain Tumors

Burning Away Brain Tumors

Ivanhoe (Oct. 1, 2014) Doctors are 'cooking' brain tumors. Hear how this new laser-heat procedure cuts down on recovery time. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins