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29/07/2014

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Eight-legged science communication

Jim Bell jumps in

There are many people across the country with a crippling fear of spiders. When the fear impacts other areas of a person’s life, it is considered a phobia. Arachnophobia is easily one of most common in the UK.

There are now courses designed to help people by using a combination of psychological techniques and information about spiders – in other words, communicating spider science. But should we be looking to science communication to help us, or can new scientific research itself provide an easier way of ruling our greatest fears?

Spider sci com

Dave Naish, Education Manager at Bristol Zoo, runs the Living with Spiders phobia sessions, aimed at helping people with arachnophobia. But as Dave explains, even talking about the topic can be difficult. ‘Sometimes just the word spider makes people cry,’ he says. ‘We don’t use images because that upsets people as well. They think that every spider is out to get them; they think that spiders can drink your blood; they haven’t got a nice thought about spiders. That’s because it’s all irrational.’

Understanding the facts about spiders is just an element of the course at the zoo, but having a spider expert there on hand to help people engage with the science of spiders is an important part of the process. Participants get some background on the structure of spiders, their behaviour and ecology, and even have the opportunity to meet a live spider at the end of the course.

A hypnotherapist is used during the session to help calm the participants down and address their specific fears.

‘Before they come and do the course, they believe that the hypnotherapy will be the most effective part,’ Dave says. ‘It turns out that afterwards they feel the information about spiders was just as effective, or just as useful.’

It seems that the combination of psychological techniques and information has the potential to help people, but as Dave notes, this approach cannot be expected to work for everyone: ‘We are not a cure, we help people cope with their phobia.’

Subliminal therapy

While these types of courses have a good success rate, with around 75 per cent of participants finding the techniques used helpful in dealing with their phobia, the technique does not work for everyone.

However, current exposure therapy for phobia sufferers may soon be a thing of the past thanks to a new method used by American researcher Joel Weinberger.

The scientists working on this new technique exposed people to subliminal images that they did not consciously register. One group was given images of spiders while the other was given a neutral outdoor scene. The researchers found that, of those who had previously identified themselves as being afraid of spiders, the group that was shown the subliminal spiders was then more willing to approach a live tarantula than those who had not.

‘We know the effects last at least a week; we don’t know yet if they last longer,’ says Joel. ‘And it’s practically quite simple:  they’re not made to feel anxious, they’re just looking at a computer screen and lo and behold they’re more willing to approach the object of their fear.’

An available treatment based on this technique is still at least a couple of years away, so overcoming an irrational fear of spiders is not yet as easy as exposing your brain to spider pictures without you even knowing. Perhaps in the future we won’t need to face our fears in quite the same way as we do today, but it is likely that a combination of approaches will always work best, and a little bit of spider knowledge is certainly no bad thing.

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Jim Bell
Jim Bell is a freelance science communicator www.bugexplorers.co.uk
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