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Fighting Phobias, One Spider at a Time

Associate Professor of Psychology, Paul Siegel’s groundbreaking research offers hope to those who suffer from fears.

For some people, fear is debilitating and can have a profound effect on their daily lives. Associate Professor of Psychology, Paul Siegel, is hoping to change that.

With the help of a $465,000, two-year research grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, and a $60,000, two-year NARSAD Young Investigator Grant from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, Professor Siegel and his research partner, Bradley Peterson, have just finished a long term study which may offer hope regarding potential new treatments for phobias.

For the past several years, he’s been testing the hypothesis that subliminal stimuli—images that flash so quickly the viewer isn’t aware of them—can diminish fear enough to make a crucial difference.

Dr. Siegel says, “A long-standing clinical belief is that a patient must directly confront what they fear in order to reduce fear of it. Challenging this belief, studies in my lab at Purchase have shown that repeatedly presenting pictures of spiders without conscious awareness causes spider-phobic participants to get closer to, rather than avoid, a live tarantula. “

His study, which is about to be published in the Human Brain Mapping journal,  compared brain activity of phobic people during repeated presentation of pictures of spiders, when they were aware of them, and when they were not aware of them.

The phobic people processed them significantly more when they were not aware of them, particularly in brain regions that support regulation of fear and associated behavioral responses.


Dr. Siegel said, “These findings suggest that it is possible to reduce fear symptoms unconsciously, and thus without causing people emotional distress.Hopefully, what we’re doing will be applicable not only to fear of spiders, but to other fears that are more impairing.”

The findings were also recently published on sciencedaily.com.