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Is Dread Driving Your Decisions?

Study: Dread Roosts in Brain, Often Prompts 'Get It Over With' Attitude
WebMD Health News

May 4, 2006 -- Dread may drive decision-making, but you may be able to regain control of the steering wheel.

Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, and colleagues gave mild foot shocks to 32 people in an experiment about dread.

"Some individuals dreaded the outcome so much that, when given a choice, they preferred to receive more voltage rather than wait," the researchers write. Berns' team later notes in the study that "distracting an individual's attention from the affected part of the body would be predicted to decrease dread."

In short, dread drove some participants' decisions, but distracting attention may help defuse dread.

Shock to the Foot

Participants were 18 men and 14 women aged 19-49. They wore electrodes on their feet and got functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans during the experiment.

Through the electrodes, the researchers delivered mild electrical shocks to participants' feet. First, the researchers established each participant's pain threshold and promised never to deliver shocks equal to or greater than that threshold.

Next, participants were told how strong their next foot shock would be and when it would happen. The advance warning gave them time to anticipate, or dread, the shock.

Meanwhile, the researchers used the brain scans to monitor brain activity in each participant as the experiment unfolded.

Tracing Dread in the Brain

The brain scans showed a spike in activity in the brain's pain matrix -- a network of brain regions that process pain -- before the shocks were delivered.

Knowing that the shock was coming spurred the brain's pain matrix into action, the study shows.

But the dread didn't stop there. Given the chance, dread drove participants' decisions about how much pain they were willing to take, and when.

Their decisions may surprise you. If you think participants delayed the shocks as long as possible or always opted for the lowest possible shock, guess again. Dread apparently pushed some people to actually choose more pain in a shorter time, just to get it over with.

Getting It Over With

First, participants could choose to get their next shock on time or sooner than scheduled, without the voltage changing. More than three in four (78%) opted to hurry up their next shock.

Then the researchers gave participants another choice: Get a stronger shock sooner, or a milder shock later.

For instance, participants could choose to wait three seconds to get a shock at 90% of their pain threshold or to wait 27 seconds for a shock at 60% of their pain threshold.

Nine people (28%) chose to get the stronger shock sooner. Berns' team dubbed those people "extreme dreaders." The others, called "mild dreaders," opted to wait longer for the gentler shock.

The extreme dreaders had more activity in a brain region involved in attention, the study shows.

"The key factor seems to be that extreme dreaders devoted more attention toward the part of their body that was about to be shocked," Berns says, in a news release. "This is important because it means that dread is not quite the same as fear or anxiety."

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