How Fear Can Skew Spatial Perception

How Fear Can Skew Spatial Perception

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Are you overcome by ophidiophobia when you come across a snake in the wild? As it turns out, the abnormal fear of snakes, or other phobias, can alter how we think and perceive the world. “Our results show that emotion and perception are not fully dissociable in the mind,” said Emory psychologist Stella Lourenco, Ph.D., co-author of the study published in Current Biology. “Fear can alter even basic aspects of how we perceive the world around us. This has clear implications for understanding clinical phobias.”

For the study, researchers leveraged the innate ability to dodge or block an object  heading toward one. To study the effects of fear, the researchers set up an experiment to test how fear compromised the accuracy of that skill. Study participants made time-to-collision judgments of images on a computer screen. The images expanded in size over one second before disappearing, to simulate “looming,” an optical pattern used instinctively to judge collision time. The study participants were instructed to gauge when each of the visual stimuli on the computer screen would have collided with them by pressing a button. For the most part, participants tended to underestimate the collision time for images of threatening objects, such as a snake or spider, as compared to non-threatening images, such as a rabbit or butterfly. The results challenge the traditional view of looming, as a purely optical cue to object approach.

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