The Loh Down On Science

How conquering a fear is as easy as sleeping on it!

Hauner et al., Nature Neurosci., 2013

Subjects in slow-wave sleep (SWS) underwent repeated re-exposure to the target odorant (in 30s on-off intervals), outside of the MRI scanner. The hypnogram illustrates sleep-staging data for a representative subject.

Scared?  Dive into bed and pull the covers over your head!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science

Saying it’s true.  Or so suggests Katherina Hauner from Northwestern University in Chicago. She made a couple of dozen volunteers literally fear a pleasant odor.  How?  She would release, say, a perfume of pine.  That was followed by a mild electric shock to a subject's foot.  Bzzt!  Sorry!  She repeated this until the fragrance alone made subjects sweat with the anticipation of a shock.

Then, as subjects either watched a movie or napped?  She sporadically re-released the scary scent.  Boo!  Movie-watchers broke into the fear-induced sweat every single time.  But nappers?  Their fear response weakened with every exposure!  What gives?  

Well, our brains consolidate, or strengthen, memories during sleep.  Looks like they can be re-recorded at the same time.  So sleepers who experienced the smell repeatedly, filed it without fear.  Bam!  Fear factor eliminated! 

The findings could lead to sleep therapy for certain phobias.

And even home remedies.  Afraid of liver sausage?  Smear it on your pillow and . . .  sweet dreams!  Ew.

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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