Magazine article Science News

Minds May Track Danger Unconsciously

Magazine article Science News

Minds May Track Danger Unconsciously

Article excerpt

Feelings of anxiety typically flood consciousness with a vivid sense of foreboding. However, those anguished feelings may originate in an unconscious mental process that anticipates real or imagined threats, according to a new study.

The investigation, which combines classical conditioning with brain wave measurements, broadly supports a theory of anxiety formulated 70 years ago by Sigmund Freud, contends psychologist Philip S. Wong of the New School for Social Research in New York.

"Some kind of unconscious signal function in the brain for anticipating danger situations must be a central feature of any comprehensive model of mind," Wong says.

Freud theorized that individuals unconsciously perceive dangerous situations resembling past traumas and recreate weaker, sometimes distorted versions of the past event to achieve a sense of control. Under these circumstances, feelings of anxiety act as a signal for help and trigger psychological defense mechanisms such as denial and repression, in Freud's view.

To explore unconscious processes involved in signal anxiety, Wong relied on a research design that uses classical conditioning. For instance, other investigators have found that people conditioned to expect a finger shock after seeing certain images exhibit rises in skin electrical conductance--an indication of heightened stress--upon viewing the same images flashed too quickly for conscious evaluation.

Wong fitted 17 men, all physically and mentally healthy, with sensors to monitor the brain's electrical activity. …

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