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21 September 2015

Afraid of circles? How fear reveals our most simple selves

We often forget that fear is our most primal, deep-seated response. Why else would we be scared of such strange things?

By Michael Brooks

We are such simple creatures that we can attach fears to a circle. In a study published this month in the Journal of Sleep Research, subjects were shown successive images of small and big circles. The appearance of one size of circle was heralded with a startling sound. After a break, the participants were monitored for a fear response such as elevated pulse, skin conductivity and breathing rate while being shown circles that slowly varied in size. If the new circle size was heading towards the size of the circles associated with the alarming sound, the subjects displayed signs of fear.

We often forget that fear is our most primal, deep-seated response. It is easy to create and even easier to spread: we directly transfer our fears on to anything similar to something we are already scared of. There is a good evolutionary reason for this: fear can keep you alive. These days, however, such evolved inclinations can be used against us. And they are – especially by newspaper sub-editors.

Fear-mongering headlines about Jeremy Corbyn provide a good recent example. However, it is the headlines relating to medical studies that pose the greatest threat.

“Alzheimer’s can be spread from human to human, explosive research claims”, was the Mirror’s online announcement of a new paper in the journal Nature. The Independent went with “Alzheimer’s disease may be infectious, study claims”.

Yet both stories eventually made it clear that you can’t catch Alzheimer’s from contact with people.

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The damage, however, is done. Dementia has already taken cancer’s place as the disease we fear the most; our brains are primed to deepen that fear with every piece of bad news, however misleading we might subsequently discover it to be.

The headline-writing is particularly irresponsible here: it is possible that the next time anyone who has seen these headlines comes into contact with someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, something in the back of their mind will alter their behaviour. The scary circles research suggests they will unconsciously generalise it to other dementias; as a result of those headlines, people with Parkinson’s disease, for instance, may find themselves subtly stigmatised.

That is particularly tragic because it has emerged that Parkinson’s sufferers do have something new to worry about. In August, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco discovered that a debilitating condition called multiple system atrophy (MSA) is infectious. MSA is similar to Parkinson’s but much more serious, often killing sufferers within a few years. We now know it is caused by a process similar to the one that triggers BSE and CJD: infection by a misfolded protein known as a prion.

Given the similarity of MSA in the initial stages to Alzheimer’s disease, and its relative rarity, sufferers are often wrongly diagnosed and treated as Alzheimer’s patients. That frequently involves surgical procedures to embed tremor-reducing electrodes in their brains.

That is where the risk lies. Prions cannot be destroyed by standard sterilisation procedures, and if the MSA-causing prions stick to the surgical instruments, there is a significant risk that the next patient on whom they are used (and the surgical team wielding them) could become infected with MSA. Did that make the headlines? No. 

This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War