You're probably afraid of spiders. You may argue that it's a perfectly rational fear, but it's strictly irrational unless your're staring a Black Widow or Brown Recluse in the face. Most spiders are harmless heroes who only want to protect your house from the more dangerous bugs that carry disease. Well, fear them no more as science has found a way that may cure you of your arachnophobia.
The University of Massachusetts, Amherst, recently conducted a study on 66 women to study the effects of sleep on arachnophobia. The researchers created four control groups to find out how "fear extinction is affected by sleep, wakefulness and time of day." The women were subjected to a rather tame, and pretty funny video, on spiders.
The time of day control groups watched the video 14 times in sessions that were two hours apart. These groups were used to rule out that time of day had any effect on fear. The two groups that are of interest is the sleep and wake groups. These groups watched the video 14 times in sessions that were 12 hours apart - either after being awake for 12 hours or being asleep for the same amount of time.
Now this is where things get interesting. To measure the fear in those watching the video, the researchers would set off a loud noise in 60 percent of the viewings. They used a system that measured palm sweat to calculate fear. The women were then subjected to old and new spider videos. The fear was measured in accordance with the old and new videos to see if there was a change in response.
The results might be a little surprising. They found that sleep did a better job of reinforcing a memory formed during exposure therapy. In essence, the women went to sleep with the memories of spiders fresh in their memory. By sleeping with these memories, it lessened the impact the spider videos had on them the next day.
So what about the women who watched spider videos and then stayed awake for 12 hours? They were found to have a worse response to watching more spider videos at the end of the day.
Interestingly enough, the sleep control group wasn't even afraid of the new spider when it was introduced. The women who stayed awake were even more afraid of it.
So what do we take from all of this? You should expose yourself to fears and then sleep on it. Your brain will reintroduce you to these fears whether you know it or not during your REM cycle. You might even dream about the fear in question. So far, it seems to only have positive effects though as it might even cure said fears.
The study in question was only performed on those with arachnophobia because it's probably the most prevalent fear among people. It opens up new avenues, however, of killing other irrational fears. My fear of flying may be a thing of the past if I'm able to get up in a plane and then sleep it off. Unfortunately, convincing myself to fly might be a little difficult.[h/t: Harvard News]