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Fear • Posted: Aug 11, 2009 13:16:26Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

Imagine you are a passenger on a small plane. There are, say, 9 other passengers, the pilot, and one crew member, 12 people in all. The plane is airborne and crossing the coastal region of a large body of water. The air is clear. The sun is out. The ride is smooth.

Now imagine one of the other passengers becomes extremely agitated upon seeing the plane will soon be over water. That passenger insists on talking to the pilot, indicating they must turn around and not fly over water. The crew member tries to calm the passenger, but is not having any success. The agitated passenger tries to rise from his seat and force his way toward the flight deck. Other passengers now become alarmed and worry what will happen next.

What exactly can be done? And who should do it? Is deadly force necessary? Or physical restraint? Or a punch in the mouth? Will talking or caressing of any tone help? Will a loud chorus of "JUST SIT DOWN" by all on board help? Perhaps a quickly administered drug? Or is calm dispassionate acquiescence the answer?

Clearly, fear has taken hold and is quickly spreading amongst both passengers and crew. Fear is an extremely primitive emotion. It's evolutionary purpose is to aid survival. But there are plenty of times when it does just the opposite. On a small plane, unfounded out of control fear could quickly precipitate a devastating end for all on board, and possibly for innocents on the ground as well. A backfiring car could cause a returning war veteran to hit the floor, reach for a gun, and begin firing indiscriminately. A rape victim could suddenly and enduringly become unable to reciprocate intimacy. A person's brush with drowning could ignite a lasting intense fear of water.

Nature has provided us with a natural and wise counter to unfettered fear. That counter is rational, evidence based thought. Fear is triggered by reflex. Rational thought can intervene and override fear inspired thoughts and behaviors. New, less dysfunctional responses can be learned and applied. Some such therapies do show success. But once established, irrational reflexive fear cannot yet be totally eliminated or extinguished. It forever lurks beneath, ready to rear its irrational head.

Recent research offers an interesting bit of hope, though. Scientists at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto reported in the journal Science last March that they have identified and were able to disrupt one particular biochemical pathway involved in the formation of emotional memories in mice. They demonstrated the DNA transcription factor CREB is intimately involved in selecting which neurons will be involved in the formation of new emotional memories, in their case associating an electronic tone with severe electric shock. They further demonstrated that if those specifically selected neurons are subsequently destroyed, the newly formed emotional memory invoking fear, as triggered by the electronic tone, can be completely extinguished without disrupting other memories or brain functions.

What those researchers have discovered is not directly translatable to useable treatments for humans. But it does offer hope that one day it may be possible to either prevent from forming or subsequently extinguish very specific severely dysfunctional emotional memories and associations without extinguishing or disrupting other emotional or nonemotional memories, or any other normal brain function.

Unfortunately, if offers no hope at all for extinguishing fear mongers who seek to motivate mass behavior through appeals bypassing reason and/or verifiable evidence, such as those now being heard from forces opposing healthcare reform in the U.S. Perhaps some modification to the right of free speech insisting otherwise is in order??

Back we are, I think, to that situation on the plane headed out over water. It's a situation we all would do well to think about. Do we really want irrational fear to control our destiny??

Friday, July 24th, 2009
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