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This is Your Brain on Fear

Dean Mobbs, assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience, researches what happens in the brain when people feel threatened. In a video interview for the Caltech Break Through campaign, Mobbs explains how he draws inspiration for his experiments from an unlikely source: horror movies.


I love horror movies. Sometimes, directors of horror movies are some of the best psychologists because they know how to evoke fear in people.

There's a horror movie called Dawn of the Dead. There's a scene where there are survivors outside of a shopping mall. There's some zombies in the distance, and the zombies spot these individuals and they begin to run. And the zombies are getting closer, and closer, and closer. What that does, it causes the observer to become more tense.

I watched this movie and I thought, that's very interesting, we should be using some of the tools that they use to study fear and anxiety.

Caltech really encourages you to find your own way, your own questions, your own creative expression.

What I work on is trying to understand how the brain processes different types of threat or danger. Really trying to understand disorders such as PTSD, anxiety disorders, panic disorders.

At Caltech's Brain Imaging Center, we can look at how the brain as a unified system functions. Our subjects are placed into an MRI scanner; they can see a screen above their head. These individuals play games where they are pursued by a virtual predators in virtual environments. They can make decisions by pressing buttons on the button box while we observe their brain activity.

We were the first to show that there was a switch between those regions associated with distant threat and these older primitive regions of the brain when the threat is close. Fight or flight. There's this moment of, "Yes, we've done it!" The brain is dynamically switching between all of these different systems.

What we've shown more recently is that these same brain regions are associated with fast and slower decision-making processes as well. We can then use that base of science to try to understand what goes wrong in patients with clinical disorders of emotion, target those neural circuits with drugs or gene therapies and so on, and alter those behaviors.

Caltech allows us to be risky. That's an important part of science. It's where discovery occurs.