How does fear work? Click here to launch our Atlas of Fear.
When I was nine years old, my family moved into a newly constructed home in a pleasant Seattle suburb. Within a few days, I began to notice an unsettling number of spiders creeping along baseboards, dangling in closets, and loitering under furniture. I convinced myself that the assault could only be because our digs had inadvertently razed some kind of spider civilization, and these guys were out for revenge. I remember being unable to sleep, spooked by the sight of an eight-legged nasty clinging to the ceiling, waiting to pounce. I would insist that my father leave the stairwell light on so I could track its every move, certain that under the cover of darkness the little monster would sneak into my bed and burrow into my ear canal, where it would lay its sticky spider eggs and spawn a whole new arachnid dynasty. I stuffed wads of toilet paper into my ears as a first line of defense.
Fast-forward 30 years, and I find my repulsion firmly entrenched, seemingly for good. On a recent business trip, I glimpsed a spider behind the nightstand in my hotel room. I summoned the concierge, who duly chased the evil critter into the hall with a broom. "No problem," he smirked when I apologized for my wimpiness. "Happens all the time."
There's a proven treatment for phobias called exposure therapy, better known as "facing your fears." I merely have to immerse myself in a bathtub with hundreds of spiders, let the insects crawl freely over my naked body, and voil! I'll be cured.
Luckily, New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, the world's preeminent fear guru, agrees that this tactic might not be the most efficient remedy. Imagine forcing an aviophobe onto a plane-a severe panic attack could trigger a midair rerouting to the nearest loony bin. But LeDoux may have uncovered a better way. After a two-decade-long pursuit into the depths of the brain, LeDoux has shown that it's possible to eliminate deep-seated fears. All you have to do is remove the memory that created it.
Last year, in a landmark experiment in rats, LeDoux opened a path to doing just that. He showed that it's possible to obstruct the memory of a specific traumatic event without affecting other memories. He also demonstrated that when the memory was stifled, the fear it roused vanished as well.
This sudden ability to produce selective amnesia stunned the scientific community. It also offers unimaginable promise. It could relieve soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or rid sexual abuse and rape victims of haunting memories. My spiders would be fair game, as would LeDoux's enduring aversion to snakes. Other researchers have been quick to adapt LeDoux's findings. One has already begun experimenting on human subjects, and a startup company has emerged that plans to eliminate fears in the comfort of your own home. All you need is a mail-order box of pills and the accompanying DVD.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.