Silken Laumann says that she has had an “intimate” relationship with fear her whole life.
Only 10 weeks before the 1992 Olympic summer games, the Canadian reigning world champion of single sculls rowing suffered a severe injury to her right leg. At the time, medical staff told her she might not row again, let alone compete in the upcoming games. Laumann not only returned to her boat in time to compete, but she also won the bronze medal.
“Learning not to be afraid of being afraid was pretty important for me in my development as a high-performance athlete,” says the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame inductee, who now works as a motivational speaker, author and life coach helping others conquer their own fears. “Fear is just an emotion, and emotions aren’t negative or positive. It’s the holding on to them that usually causes us so much pain.”
Laumann has seen how debilitating fear can be firsthand. She recently partnered with Samsung to explore how virtual reality can help ordinary people get over their fears of public speaking or heights. The Be Fearless campaign exposes those suffering from phobias to the source of their fears in a safe and virtual environment.
“The technology works to take you through the scenario over and over again so you increase your comfort in each scenario,” says Laumann. “It’s the same way you work as an athlete; you visualize and prepare for success, and over time you get more confident.”
Fear-related disorders affect around one in 14 people.
In the past, phobias and fears have been primarily treated using aversion therapy; that is, forcing someone to get close to the thing that terrifies them. Understandably, few arachnophobes are eager to sign up for a treatment regimen that involves exposure to spiders, which limits the effectiveness of exposure therapy. This is where technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality have such high potential.
“We know it works, because the subconscious can’t discern from a real experience and an imagined experience,” says Laumann. “VR technology really creates an enhanced way of visualizing, which has been proven effective for overcoming fear.”
Scientists at the University of Cambridge in Japan are also making headway in helping people overcome fear. Using a combination of artificial intelligence and brain-scanning technology, researchers have managed to identify subconscious fear memories using a new technique called Decoded Neurofeedback.
Researchers exposed 17 healthy volunteers to minor electric shocks, which allowed them to track how fear is registered in the subjects’ brains. The research team then gave volunteers rewards whenever they saw a repeat pattern emerge, even subconsciously, effectively overwriting the fear patterns with positive associations.
“In effect, we’re taking things that were associated with pain and associating them with something positive,” says Dr. Ben Seymour, a University of Cambridge engineering researcher and one of the study’s authors.
Dr. Seymour says that fear is valuable and that without it humans wouldn’t survive, but in some extreme examples it can take over a person’s whole way of life. He says the goal is to eventually develop the means to conquer this sort of debilitating fear in patients suffering from phobias and PTSD.
“The experiment in question shows in principle that it might be possible,” he says. “But it’s important to realize that it’s a huge leap to go from a laboratory experiment to [treating] a clinical disease.”
While reprogramming the brain to overcome severe phobias may take some time, other technologies like virtual reality are making it significantly easier for everyday people to get over their fears and live a more courageous life.