Science of Fear: Startle response

ATLANTA -- It sounds like a scene from a scary movie: a research scientist strapped me into a dentist-like chair, plugged my finger into a heart rate monitor and called the whole thing "The Fear Theater".

Seth Norrholm is an assistant Professor at Emory University, but he's also a research scientist at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Hospital. Loud noises play a role in many of the PTSD and anxiety disorder patients he sees.

"The fear of loud noises is something that prepares you for a potential threat, and so when we hear something loud, we have what's called a startle response. All mammals have this startle response. You're going to blink your eyes. It's one of those things that happens at the level of the spinal cord. It's a reflex."

Norrholm observes my reaction to a baseline startle response test. Cameras capture by reaction to a loud, sharp noise. My eyes close and my shoulders tense. "Totally normal response," he said.

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A person's level of startle response can be influenced by whether or not they've been exposed to a traumatic experience or if they have an anxiety disorder. Doctors and counselors help patients lower their startle response by exposing them to a fear in a safe place without negative reaction.

"After you've gone through 12 weeks of psychotherapy and exposure therapy, all based on the process of extinction, now your fear has gone down through the course of treatment because you've learned to inhibit or extinguish that fear."

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This is part of a special series, Science of Fear, that will air Tuesday-Friday on Atlanta Alive. The Fernbank Museum and Emory University assistant professor and V.A. research scientist, Seth Norrholm, explain the science behind the human reaction to fear. You can explore more by visiting Fernbank's Goose Bumps exhibit open through January 4, 2015.


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