May 14, 2006

The Dread Zone

I encountered this research about the neurobiology of dread twice recently — in the New York Times and on Science Friday (mp3).

Science Friday interviewed Gregory Berns (professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory), who used fMRI to determine the areas of the brain that are activated when we experience dread — and then suggests that the anticipation of something unpleasant or painful (ie, dread) has an effect on the decisions we make. He's combining neurobiology with economic behavior theories.

The Emory press release quotes Dr. Berns: " 'Most people don't like waiting for an unpleasant outcome, and want to get it over with as soon as possible,' explains Dr. Berns, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. 'The only explanation for this is that the dread of having something hanging over your head is worse than the thing that you are dreading. It is a commonplace experience, but standard economic models of decision-making don't deal with this issue. So, we decided to take a biological approach and see what happens in the brain that might cause people to make such rash decisions.' "

This is getting lots o' press:

Health: Study Points to a Solution for Dread: Distraction
by Sandra Blakeslee
New York Times, May 5, 2006.
Scientists have found that dread does not involve fear and anxiety in the moment of an unpleasant event, but rather the attention that people devote to it beforehand.

Is Dread Driving Your Decisions?
Study: Dread Roosts in Brain, Often Prompts 'Get It Over With' Attitude
by Miranda Hitti, WebMD Medical News, May 4, 2006.

And the article itself:
Neurobiological Substrates of Dread (no free access)
ScienceMay 5 2006:
Vol. 312. no. 5774, pp. 754 - 758
by Gregory S. Berns, et al.
Deciding between two choices can be difficult, particularly when they are separated in time. Economic theory accommodates the calculation by discounting the future outcome by the amount of time, most simply via a hyperbolic function. An additional factor is the cost of waiting, which can be represented clearly when the outcomes are unpleasant (electric shocks to one's foot), and the choice is between a stronger shock in a few seconds versus a weaker shock a half minute later. Many people will opt to "get it over with," primarily, one assumes, to avoid the anticipation of future pain, which is used as an operational definition by Berns et al. in examining the neural basis of dread. Areas within the cortical pain matrix respond in a fashion that can be associated with the extent of dread expressed across individuals.

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