BE AFRAID: The Science of Fear

There’s still so much we don’t know about fear. Could it be good for you? What would life be like without it?
Available on CBC Gem

BE AFRAID: The Science of Fear

Nature of Things

Why do some people seek out terrifying experiences, while others avoid fear at all costs? Why does fear spur some to fight and leave others frozen? Although the emotion of fear is as old as life itself, scientists are asking new questions and getting new answers about h ow our brains process it.

In Amsterdam, professor of psychology Merel Kindt seems to have discovered a cure for fear. With a two-minute exposure to a frightening situation, a good night’s rest and a pill used for decades as heart medication, people who used to cower in terror before spiders, mice and even chickens are suddenly liberated. The results are dramatic and seemingly permanent. Eva Holland of Whitehorse makes the journey to the Netherlands to see what Kindt can do about her fear of heights.

Flying high is not something Kyle Demelo has trouble with. He’s a motocross stunt champion from Oliver, B.C., and ever since he was a kid, he’s enjoyed racing bikes off ramps to soar through the air. He does experience fear, as he’s been severely injured when stunts don’t go as planned — he’s simply able to get past it. Demelo is having his brain scanned by David Zald, who studies thrill seekers to understand how they are able to control their fears to a degree that seems super-human.

Of course, we don’t always want to get past our fears; we also enjoy being afraid on occasion. How else to explain the popularity of horror movies, frightening video games and haunted house attractions? Sociologist Margee Kerr takes a tour of a giant “scream park” to break down the science behind its scares. She explains the benefits of fear and what may be behind our fear of clowns. For her research, Ohio State’s Teresa Lynch uses video games to study the basic mechanisms of fear, specifically a new, creepy production from students at Toronto’s George Brown College.

Are there fears we outgrow and fears we grow into? Are there some fears that we’re born with? David Rakison, a psychologist, shows babies pictures of snakes, spiders, rodents and sharks to see if and when they get spooked to get the answers.

Michael Ampah-Baiden developed his fear of heights when he was a teenager and is ready to try using virtual reality to treat it. At the University of Quebec in Gatineau, Stéphane Bouchard has the world’s most developed VR lab designed for this purpose. It’s amazing what just a few hours in it can do, and Michael soon finds himself peering over the edge of a deep virtual sinkhole — and jumping in.

While many of us dream of living a life with no fear, the reality has its downsides. Justin Feinstein of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research reveals the fascinating case of S.M., a mysterious woman who doesn’t feel fear. Born with a condition that affected her amygdala, the part of the brain that is thought to control all our fear responses, S.M. doesn’t flinch — even when her life is threatened. Yet through their work together, Feinstein is learning that fear may not be exclusively controlled by the amygdala after all.

Written and directed by Roberto Verdecchia, BE AFRAID: The Science of Fear is a fun, freaky and fact-filled tour through the strange and exciting places where fearless researchers dare to tread. Through an intriguing mix of experiments and old-school scare tactics, they’re learning how this most primal of emotions can help us overcome obstacles, stay safe in the midst of danger and even — can you imagine? — find peace. So sit down, turn on all the lights, lock all the doors and enjoy.