Brain Facts

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Patterns in the brain reveal our fear of the unknown

Research is under way into brain patterns that reveal how we learn social threats, fears and values. This knowledge may give us new tools to cope with everything from xenophobia to anxiety conditions.

As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, Andreas Olsson will be finding out more about what happens in the brain when fears and values are learnt. We already know for certain that our commonest phobias and fears are linked to the conditions under which early humans lived.

Many people are scared and wary of heights, crowds and strangers. These behaviors are often rooted in primitive mechanisms that have evolved in response to critical problems faced by our ancestors, Dr. Olsson explains.

Ancient instincts cause problems
But instincts that were once necessary may be a handicap in modern life. In stressful situations a person may become paralyzed with fear - increasing the risk of accidents. For some people, an inability to cope with fear may cause anxiety disorders and depression. It is also likely that evolution has prepared humans to develop persistent fear of individuals who belong to other tribes, fomenting xenophobia and conflict.

The brain has not kept up with developments, as Dr. Olsson says:

Fear that was an adaptation to our original environment becomes dysfunctional in modern life.

Us and Them in the brain

Dr. Olsson and his colleagues are mapping patterns in the brain that reveal how fears and values are learnt and change. There are different ways of learning, depending on factors such as our own expectations and whether we learn directly through our own experiences or indirectly via information we receive from others.

Among other things, the experiments have shown there are automatic processes in the brain favoring an Us and Them approach. One study paired images of faces belonging to the own and another ethnic group with an aversive experience. Following such aversive experiences, fair-skinned people tended to be more afraid of people with darker skin. Conversely, dark-skinned people tended to be afraid of those with lighter skin. But even seemingly arbitrary distinctions drawn in the laboratory, based, for example, on T-shirt color, give similar results.

Throughout the world there are conflicts based on group affiliations, such as ethnicity, religion or the football clubs people support. We are studying the factors common to these social values in order to learn more about the underlying mechanisms, Olsson explains.

U.S. models

In the experiments the researchers have volunteers react to various stimuli, while simultaneously measuring their eye movements and brain activity. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) they are able to see in real time how the brain works by measuring blood flow, thereby linking a given activity to a specific part of the brain. Using knowledge drawn from animal models it is then possible to conduct more detailed investigations of various regions of the brain, such as the amygdala, which plays a primary role in emotional reactions.

Most of the research is being conducted at the researchers' own laboratory: the Emotion Lab at Karolinska Institutet in Solna, north of Stockholm. Their research is modeled on pre-eminent research environments in the U.S., including New York University and Columbia University, where Dr. Olsson researched as a doctoral student and postdoc.

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