We know this’ll sound odd, but: scientists have found a possible cure for fear, and it involves weird smells, electric shocks, and sleep.
A study published in Nature Neuroscience has found that exposure therapy, a proven method of curing fear that involves repeated exposure to the object of your fear, can be done while you sleep. First, researchers created a new fear in their subjects by exposing them to specific images and smells and then shocking them with electricity, thus causing the subjects to sweat and grow anxious when exposed to the images and smells again, due to their anticipation of electrical shock.
Then, once they had successfully terrorized their subjects into developing new fears, the scientists set out to cure said fears by once more exposing their subjects to the same smells as before, but this time their subjects were asleep. Specifically, the subjects were in slow-wave sleep (i.e., the deepest stage of sleep), during which the mind replays recent memories. Initially, the subjects started sweating in their sleep when exposed to the smell, but over time, the response lessened. When subjects were exposed to the same images and smells while they were awake, the fear responses were no longer as strong; researchers confirmed this with an MRI.
Of course, findings are very preliminary, but it’s possible that exposure therapy, in the future, will be conducted with subjects asleep. Hear that, crippling fear of pencil-moustaches? We’ll beat you yet.