60-Second Science

Watching Someone Else's Fear Induces Your Own

Horror movies may bank on the same part of your brain getting excited while watching someone else in fear as when you're in fear yourself.

[Audio clip of FDR saying the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.]  Of coures, FDR never participated in any brain-imaging studies at NYU. Psychologists there have been studying how strong emotions, like fear, affect learning. They recently found that not only can our brains learn from frightening personal experience—think of how you avoid a hot plate after touching one [ENOUGH BEES FROM YOU LATELY!]--but we can actually learn to be afraid of things if we even just see them happen to someone else. 

In this study, a set of volunteers was run through a standard fear-conditioning experiment.  They received a mild electric shock every time they saw a colored square. Next, a second group of subjects was asked to watch a video of the first set of volunteers getting zapped. They were then told they were about to participate in a “similar experiment.” Well, the experimental voyeurs became just as “fearful” when they saw a colored square as the people who actually got zinged. And the same part of their brain was involved, even though they got away shock-free.  I’m a little freaked out just TALKING about the whole thing.  Male voice: And there, stuck in the car door next to the hook was…a colored square!

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