Scaring the brain into line with virtual reality

Why face real threats when simulated ones will do just fine?

Simulated fear scenarios can teach us how to embrace it. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

You’re very unlikely to hear an extreme adventurer explaining how they do what they do because of “self-directed adaptive plasticity”. But could it be that neuroscience, extreme adventurers and Darwin are all on the same page?

Extreme adventurers always give the same maddeningly simple answer when asked how they do it. Inevitably they say “anyone can do it”. The idea is that you start with something slightly outside your comfort zone limit and work from there.

Dr Andrew Huberman is a professor of neuroscience and neurobiology at Stanford School of Medicine. Among a host of state-of-the-art projects, his lab is also looking at the neuroscience of fear.

Fear is very interesting. Because if you can learn to overcome fear, or develop tools to manage it, new worlds open up with renewed confidence and motivation to explore. The central idea seems to be embodied in the famous line from Franklin D Roosevelt’s 1932 inaugural presidential address: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

In published interviews, Huberman says that there is a region of the brain around the centromedian nucleus of the thalamus which is thought to shunt incoming stimuli between the amygdala (more fear) or the forebrain (more resilience). And that’s where “self-directed adaptive plasticity” comes into it.

Neuroplasticity is a term that describes the fact (and it’s a relatively recent fact) that the brain is not fixed but adapts its networks and functioning according to life experiences. You can make it better. But you can also make it worse.

So with successful negotiation of the right amount of challenge or stress, you can nudge the brain’s response more towards the forebrain than the amygdala, with a commensurate increase in resilience.

But the “start somewhere and build” maxim doesn’t always hold. In 2011, Lee Swan became the first woman from Africa to walk to the North Pole. And that was her very first project, if you exclude a few hockey matches and the odd 5km run. Even though she spent the first few days imagining how she could bail out and still save face, she persevered, broke days and hours into manageable chunks and finally triumphed. But why did she do it in the first place?

And this is where it really gets interesting as the how and the why become entangled with each other. Huberman believes taking on these kinds of challenges is genetically hard-wired into humankind. The view is that our willingness to confront fear and take on challenges is what drives our evolution. By accepting a challenge, we evolve our species by achieving higher levels of risk tolerance. I wonder if this is the reason why audiences are usually so spell-bound when extreme adventurers give public talks. It touches something deep down in our DNA.

Of course, not everyone has the means to set up challenges for themselves. That’s where the immersive experience of virtual reality (VR) is useful. With VR, you can get incredibly close to the real experience and have the opportunity to measure biomarkers of fear-autonomic arousal.

VR is already being successfully used in a therapeutic sense to help people overcome phobias: fear of heights, spiders, public speaking, flying, exams, driving, needles, the list goes on. VR can be set up to create the experience of the phobia with no real risk of harm at all.

Skin conductance tests seem to show that the body starts building resistance to stressors the more it's exposed to them. The graph shows Alpine jumps attempted through virtual reality becoming "easier" on second and third attempts. Image: Gerald Finnemore

The vaccine analogy is useful: you expose the body to a manageable amount of the stressor and it starts to build resistance.

I have been experimenting with an intrepid client in my own practice and while the approach is not for everybody, the preliminary results are very encouraging. We measure his skin conductance (a very accurate biomarker of autonomic arousal) as well as heart rate while he tries a challenge, such as an Alpine ski jump. We repeat the experience and look at the changes in the graphs produced by the skin conductance, which incidentally, starts off looking like a mirror image of the ski slope!

Slowly but surely the numbers come down, as the brain starts to shunt the feeling more towards the forebrain, presumably with the accompanying feeling of “I can do this”.

Ultimately, according to Huberman, the idea is to shift away from unhealthy reactivity to proactive coping. Personally I like another term he uses: to become the best version of yourself.

Gerard Finnemore: Clinical Psychologist

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