Thursday, May 11, 2006

"How do you understand dread?"

Neurologist Dr. Greg P., on the Emory "Dread" study. Suppose you knew that something bad was going to happen, and that you couldn't prevent it. Would you simply wait for it? Would you suffer more, and sooner, just to get it over with? Suppose we did imaging studies of your brain, while you chose and responded. What would we learn? Is this a good model for dread, and for responses to dread?
Subjects are given a shock on their foot, after having been given a warning that the shock was coming, what its voltage will be, and what the delay is. Initially, this proceeded without any choices, as a training period.

Next, subjects were presented with a choice between receiving a certain percentage of the shock, and a certain delay, or a different percentage and a longer delay. The two voltage percentages might be the same, in which case slightly more than half the time, subjects chose the shorter delay, presumably to get the experience over with. This is what is interpreted as the Dread factor -- that subjects so dreaded the wait that they wanted to shorten the wait...

Now we have two groups of subjects, mild dreaders, who will take the early shock only when it's the same or less, and extreme dreaders, who are willing to take an earlier higher shock.

So now the neurobiologic substrate. Subjects had all this happen while having a functional MRI (fMRI) done, which can then be statistically analyzed... I still have some uncertainty about whether I can make this connection to dread. What is dread? Dread is one of these experiences that we all have, and presumably share with others. says that it is "To anticipate with alarm, distaste, or reluctance". Hard to disagree with that, but what is that really? To me it is a complex feeling that cannot be removed from its cognitive aspects, so I'm not sure that the dread identified in this study is necessarily connected to other kinds of dread, like bad news or paying my taxes, yet dread per se has all these flavors...
I'm waiting for someone to connect these findings to the "Dread factor" in politics, economics, foreign policy...and in our waiting rooms...


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