Studying fear with the aid of a video game is what Dean Mobbs, a PhD candidate in University College London’s imaging neuroscience department, and his colleagues have reported in Science.

Here’s a quote from Scientific American:

Mobbs and his colleagues report in Science that they devised a video game that required 14 subjects to move game pieces along a virtual grid to avoid a virtual predator. To increase the fear factor, players snagged by predators could receive a series of three slight electric shocks, a slight shock or no punishment at all.

Using MRI scans to track the flow of blood in the brain of the participants, the scientists were able to track regions that were more active when “fear” was a factor — and the end results are quite interesting. In times of anxiety, the fore-brain is more active in terms of devising strategies to avoid the threat. But as the threat closes in (in this case, the “predator” dots), the mid-brain kicks into action bringing in a more impulsive response.

Why a discussion on fear?

This is the time of virtual or pseudo-virtual worlds. We can practically live a day (or many) being “socially” active without seeing a human’s face. In the previous study, scientists had concluded that the prefrontal cortex is much larger in modern humans (BBC) than in our ancestors.

Does that mean that a world with minimal fear can result in a much more intelligent species? It would be interesting to know how the virtual worlds are impacting the human evolution as a whole.