Monday, April 27, 2009

Snakes and Spiders in the Apartment, Yiiii!

Even humans who aren't naturally phobic about spiders and snakes can be provoked into a certain "fear avoidance" towards them, tests in a Duke Department of Psychology and Neuroscience laboratory show. But, just one day later, most of those bad "contextual" memories seem to dissipate, unless...!

Unless those memories are formed in the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE), the university's six-sided "virtual reality" theater. Seeing "virtual" snakes and spiders in a computer-created DiVE setting somehow gives the experience more staying power than does a more-mundane lab setting, Duke postdoctoral researcher Nicole Huff reported at the final Spring 2009 Visualization Friday Forum held on April 24 at Duke's Computer Science Department.

Immersive experiences "may engage brains more intensely than a normal laboratory study," Huff said. "Could DiVE be too real?"

The continuing experiments' purpose is to test how and for how long the human brain stores memories of a disturbing experience in a particular place -- in this case seeing images of snakes and spiders.

Huff and her faculty advisor, associate professor Kevin LaBar, conducted initial investigations in a sparse laboratory cubicle or in a fancier room at Duke's Levine Science Research Center. People saw 2-D computer images of real open jawed rattlesnakes and lurking tarantulas, partially reinforced with a mild electrical wrist stimulation designed to be annoying.

Those experiences created a sense of "fear," measured as extra sweat on their skin. But just 24 hours later, test subjects returning to the same lab settings to see those images again (but without any new shocking) had lost most of that fear.

People undergoing similar tests in the DiVE had their initial three-dimensional encounters with cyber creatures amid a pleasant and realistic faux suburban setting -- either a series of indoor apartment rooms or an outdoor yard.

Though computer created, these "snakes" emit realistic rattling noises while "spiders" send out crustacean-like scuttling sounds. Those first encounters are again reinforced with mild electroshocks.

On the second day, these DiVE subjects will express the same "strong fear," Huff said, if they see and hear virtual spiders and snakes again, even though there is no additional electrical shocking. "There is a huge difference," she added.

However, people having their initial bad experiences in the apartment's living room and kitchen don't have similar bad memories if they next see spiders and snakes in the yard -- and vice versa. While the studies continue, Huff thinks the virtual experience may engage the brain in a different way.