A Dreadful Study
Dr. Gregory Berns, psychiatrist and neurosurgeon at Emory University, wanted to find out. So he set up the most dreadful experiment in order to learn about the science of dread and how the brain reacts to it. Funded by the National Institute on Drug Addiction, he set up his study (published just last Friday in Science) in the following manner:
He took 32 suckers, eh...um, participants, hooked them up to an MRI scanner, and then shocked the hell out of them. Literally. After an initial round of 96 FREAKING shocks to their left feet created a pain threshold baseline, researchers told each test subject the amount of pain (as a percentage of maximum pain threshold) prior to each shock to their left feet.
Round two then changed the rules. Prior to each shock, the participants were given a choice: you can either get a hurtful shock, closer to 100% right now, OR you can sit there and wait around for awhile and get a milder shock after some time had passed.
Several people couldn't stand waiting around for a milder shock and decided to get the higher voltage shock immediately. This reaction goes against common sense, unless you're a plain masochist, but this group of "extreme dreaders" couldn't stand the anticipation of the shock. They preferred to get the more painful jolt now instead of dealing with waiting for one...even if it was going to be less painful.
"A subset of people didn't want to wait," Dr. Berns reported. "They dreaded it so much that they preferred the bigger shock sooner. That is irrational behavior."
Instead of waiting 27 seconds for a 60% shock, they decided to get the 90% shock immediately.
My question is: Just how much are they paying these idiots getting the crap shocked out of them?
The MRI scans revealed the brain activity of the participants. The regions associated with pain obviously flared up like the 4th of July. Interestingy, the areas of the brain associated with attention were also lit - with the extreme dreaders' areas especially intense. I wonder if the part of the brain that is associated with, "Why the hell did I sign up for this damn experiment?" thoughts were also active.
So what do these results mean?
It seems for many people, the anticipation of something bad about to happen just makes it worse. Doing things like listening to music or watching a movie will probably distract an extreme dreader and take their mind off of things. The experiment also showed that feeling a high level of dread will actually make a normally rational person behave irrationally. These findings make it especially relevant to an organization like the National Institute on Drug Addiction.
Drug addicts often make poor decisions - ones that go against common sense. Since dread affects rational thought, this is some insight as to how the brain works when faced with dread and having to make a decision. "Addiction is a disorder of decision-making," Dr. Berns said.
So why do some people avoid going to the dentist even with a terrible tooth ache? Or how about not going to the doctor when someone experiences chest pain or feels a lump somwhere? Because the anticipation of going creates a high level of dread, and people will often avoid the situation alltogether - even against better judgment.
For you extreme dreaders out there, the next time you're faced with something bad or stressful coming up, try to distract yourself. A speech coach once told me in order to get over the public speaking jitters, distract myself by imagining the audience naked. Maybe I'm just perverted, or maybe public speaking doesn't make me feel very much dread, but the technique didn't work.
I just ended up with the case of the giggles.