Edinburgh, Fife & East Scotland

Researchers find fear link to Spider-Man

Image caption Spider-Man has spider sense, which gives him the edge over his adversaries

Researchers have compared people's ability to quickly learn to recognise a threat even when they are unaware of it to Spider-man's famous 'spider sense'.

Edinburgh University scientists showed people did not have to be super heroes to respond to threats without being consciously aware of them.

However they said this type of learning was swiftly forgotten.

When people were aware of a threat, they took longer to learn to be afraid but retained the fear in the long term.

The findings headed by researchers from universities in Edinburgh and New York show the differences between conscious and unconscious learning.

Dr David Carmel, from Edinburgh University's department of psychology, said the study examined how people react to danger.

Dr Carmel, of Edinburgh University's department of psychology, said: "This study shows that we are capable of learning very rapidly that something is a threat even when we don't perceive it consciously.

"On the big screen, Spider-Man can use his spider sense to tell that something is wrong; in reality, we don't need an extra sense, our brains are capable of learning about threats that we remain unaware of.

"Such learning, however, is fleeting. With awareness, learning is slower but more stable.

"Conscious processes might therefore be less automatic, but essential for forming stable impressions that allow us to hang on to what we learn."

The study, in conjunction with Candace Raio from New York University, involved group trials.

One 'awareness' group looked at pictures and were given mild electric shocks whenever particular images were shown.

The other group were shown images through only one eye while the other eye would be distracted with colourful, bright and exciting pictures that would dominate their perspective.

Post-traumatic stress

Just like the first group, they were also given electric shocks when corresponding images were shown.

The scientists then measured the body's fear response by calculating the amount of sweat on a person's fingertips.

It found that people quickly learn to recognise threats even when they are unaware of it, while those who are aware of the threat took longer to learn to be afraid of it.

It is hoped the findings will go on to help patients suffering from anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress.

Dr Carmel said the results will help anxiety sufferers face their fears head on and anticipate problems before they happen.

He said: "The way to teach people with these disorders that there's nothing to be afraid of is by showing them the very thing that they are afraid of, which can often cause some distress.

"Using these techniques we could show these things to them without them even knowing it."

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