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Psychologists Are Closing in on the Causes of Claustrophia


In one of the first studies to focus on the perceptual mechanisms of claustrophobic fear, researchers have discovered that people who project their sense of personal space too far beyond their bodies are more likely to experience claustrophobic fear.

“We’ve found that people who are higher in claustrophobic fear have an exaggerated sense of the near space surrounding them,” says Emory University psychologist Stella Lourenco, PhD, who led the research. “At this point, we don’t know whether it’s the distortion in spatial perception that leads to the fear, or vice versa. Both possibilities are likely.”

Everyone experiences claustrophobic fear to some extent, but there is a wide range of individual differences. About 4 percent of people are estimated to suffer from full-blown claustrophobia, which can cause them to have panic attacks when traveling through a tunnel or riding in an elevator. 

Neural and behavioral evidence shows that we treat space that is within arm’s reach differently from space that is farther away. “It makes adaptive sense to be more aware of things that are closer to the body, for both utilitarian purposes and defensive ones,” Lourenco says. “It also makes adaptive sense to be afraid of things that are too far away from you on the vertical dimension, since there can be a great cost to falling.”

In ongoing work, Lourenco and her co-investigators are investigating how the range of individual differences in spatial perception relates to fear. They are asking normal research subjects, who are not seeking treatment for claustrophobia or acrophobia (the fear of heights), to estimate various distances.

While the subjects who have higher levels of claustrophobic fear underestimate horizontal distances, those who have more acrophobic fear overestimate vertical distances. “One intriguing possibility is that these two types of fear may form opposite ends of a single spatial-perceptual continuum,” Lourenco says.

By Carol Clark, from Emory University’s ScienceCommons, posted April 11, 2011. The study will be published in the journal Cognition. Click here for more information.

Cultural Differences May Be More Than Skin Deep

Researchers studying the brain waves of people with Caucasian and Asian backgrounds found that cultural differences in how we think about other people are embedded deep in our minds, challenging a commonsense notion that culture is skin deep. 

People in different cultures make different assumptions about the people around them, according to the study, in which researchers had European-American and Asian-American students do an exercise in which they were told to memorize faces and behaviors. For example, they might see a woman’s face and read that the woman’s name is Julie, and that she checks the fire alarms every night before bed. 

In a second phase of the experiment, the researchers found evidence that European-Americans had made an inference about Julie’s personality during the first memory task, while Asian-Americans had not. One way they did this was by actually measuring participants’ brainwave patterns. In this part of the experiment, Asian-Americans and European-Americans were shown Julie’s face a second time, followed immediately by personality traits, such as brave and courageous. 

Unlike Asian-Americans, the brains of European-Americans registered a flash of activity indicating “surprise” when the personality traits listed appeared to contradict the personality traits they had inferred during the first memory task. Asian-Americans experienced no such surprise because they hadn’t assumed from Julie’s behavior 
of checking fire alarms every night that she was cautious or neurotic.

“We often feel that culture is like clothes; you strip them off, and we are all humans,” says researcher Shinobu Kitayama, PhD. “There’s some truth to that, but studies like this begin to demonstrate that culture can go much deeper. What appears to be a natural being, or a human mind, may be culturally shaped or formed.”

From “Spontaneous Trait Inference is Culture Specific: Behavioral and Neural Evidence,” an article about the study that will be published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.Click here for more information.

New Genetic Link Found Between Alcoholism, Impulsive Behavior, and the Brain

Researchers at the University of Michigan Health System have uncovered a new link between genetic variations associated with alcoholism, impulsive behavior, and a region of the brain involved in craving and anxiety.

Individuals under distress who also have the risky genetic variant tend to act impulsively, a behavior that may lead to the development of alcohol problems, says lead author Sandra Villafuerte, PhD, a research investigator at the University of Michigan’s Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute and Department of Psychiatry.

“Developing deeper understandings of the various genetic and environmental factors involved in risky behaviors may guide prevention and treatment efforts in the future,” she says.

The study included 449 people, from 173 families—129 of whom had at least one member diagnosed with alcohol dependence or abuse. Those with certain variations in the GABRA2 gene were more likely to have alcohol dependence symptoms and higher measures of impulsiveness in response to distress, the study found. Stronger associations were found in women than in men.

Researchers also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe changes of blood flow in the brains of 44 young adults from these families as they performed a task in which they anticipated winning or losing money.

They found that individuals with one form of the GABRA2 gene associated with alcoholism showed significantly higher activation in the insula when anticipating rewards and losses than those with other combinations. This higher activation was also related to a greater level of impulsiveness in response to distress.

The authors stress that genetic risk factors don’t act alone and simply having them does not mean that someone will become an alcoholic.

Citation: “Impulsiveness and Insula activation during reward anticipation are associated with genetic variants in GABRA2 in a family sample enriched for alcoholism,” Molecular Psychiatry, April 12, 2011. Click here for more information.