'Doctor Who' Helps Shed Light on Phobias

The first experiments to use pictures from the sci-fi series "Doctor Who" for science are now shedding light on how our brains are wired.

Such work, regarding a show that legendarily used to drive children to hide behind the sofa, could yield key insights on anxiety and phobias.

Scientists wanted to analyze what details automatically most attract our attention. For instance, if there is a spider in the room, the most spider-fearing members of a group will likely be the first to point it out. Past research hinted this happens because our attention systems are hardwired to notice threats, but other research suggested that our attention is simply drawn to details we find most important personally.

To see which idea might be correct, behavioral psychologist Helena Purkis at the University of Queensland in Australia and her colleagues at the University of Sussex in England compared how much attention was paid not only to pictures of spiders, but also images taken from "Doctor Who" — pictures with presumably no survival relevance whatsoever. (Hint: The non-survival-relevant sci-fi series grabbed the attention of enthusiasts.)

"The idea is that in any environment, attention will be allocated in order of priority to the most important stimuli first, so that these can be processed and responded to," Purkis explained. "Things that are very loud or bright automatically grab our attention. We are interested in whether other, less intense stimuli that are nonetheless salient can automatically draw attention. This tells us about the way the brain prioritizes the stimuli in our environment." [Top 10 Scary Sci-Fi Series]

For the love of Doctor Who

The scientists chose 72 volunteers who varied in both their love of "Doctor Who" and their fear of spiders. About a third who watched the show were afraid of spiders; another third or so watched the show and had no fear of spiders; and a third neither watched the show nor had a fear of spiders.

"TARDIS or tarantula?" Purkis said regarding the experiment. (The TARDIS is the vessel used to voyage across time and space on "Doctor Who" — it stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space.)

The questions judging "Doctor Who" expertise included asking which planet the Doctor was from, what species he was, how many hearts he had, why the TARDIS looked like a police box and what planet the criminal family Slitheen came from.

Then the volunteers were asked to identify as quickly and accurately as possible whether a picture of a horse was present in a grid of nine images. The grid also held pictures of spiders and screenshots taken from the most recent series of "Doctor Who" at the time of the study (the "Tenth Doctor" played by David Tennant), as well as images of fish, cows and screenshots taken from an Australian cop show and a U.S. soap opera.

The scientists found that the spider and "Doctor Who" images significantly delayed reaction times. Those who watched "Doctor Who" and were afraid of spiders were more distracted by spiders than the sci-fi series; those who watched "Doctor Who" and were not afraid of spiders were more diverted by the sci-fi images; and for those who neither watched "Doctor Who" nor were afraid of spiders, the interference posed by either spiders or "Doctor Who" was about the same.

The results suggest people are drawn to what's important to them personally rather than what's the current threat.

The scary mind

These findings could reveal clues on the brain mechanisms linked with acquiring and maintaining fears, Purkis said.

"We could try to figure out why people might view snakes and spiders as important from a developmental perspective," she told LiveScience. "For instance, snakes and spiders are probably paired with selectively negative information compared to other animals — think of how they are used in movies, for example."

It might also be possible to develop a way to retrain how people with anxiety disorders and phobias pay attention to details. "I am currently looking into using computer games to train attention to different types of cues," Purkis said.

"Another interesting question is the extent to which the attention mechanism is involved with obsessions," she added. "This could provide another angle for investigating problems such as eating disorders, addictions and obsessive behaviors — obsessions with celebrities, for instance."

Incidentally, the paper's title, "But What About the Empress of Racnoss?" is an homage to a giant spidery alien on "Doctor Who," likely "the ultimate attention-grabbing stimulus for any Dr. Who-loving spider-phobic," Purkis said.

The scientists detailed their findings online June 27 in the journal Emotion.

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Charles Q. Choi
Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and Space.com. He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.