In the Christmas season, we become even more aware that light affects mood, and a new study indicates that light may also play a role in modulating fear and anxiety. So whether or not you’ve switched, turn on the lights (just avoid standing under those spy streetlights)! Scientists have learned that intense light enhances fear or anxiety in mice, which are nocturnal, in much the same way that darkness can intensify fear or anxiety in diurnal humans.
Psychologist Brian Wiltgen says, "We looked at the effect of light on learned fear, because light is a pervasive feature of the environment that has profound effects on behavior and physiology. Light plays an important role in modulating heart rate, circadian rhythms, sleep/wake cycles, digestion, hormones, mood and other processes of the body. Studies show that light influences learning, memory and anxiety. We have now shown that light also can modulate conditioned fear responses."
The researchers used a common method for studying learned fear. They cued their mice with a minute-long tone that was followed two seconds later by a quick, mild electrical shock. The mice learned to associate the tone with the shock and quickly became conditioned to duck down and remain motionless when they heard the tone, in the same way they would if a predator appeared.
They discovered that by intensifying the ambient light, the mice showed a greater fear reaction to the tone than when the light was dimmer. This makes sense because mice naturally avoid detection by predators by hunkering down motionless as a defense mechanism. In a natural habitat they likewise would become particularly anxious in the presence of a predator in bright light where they would be more easily detected. Wiltgen says, "We showed that light itself does not necessarily enhance fear, but more light enhances learned fear. It may be similar to a person learning to be more fearful in the dark."
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