Disrupting Memories May Effectively Treat Lifelong Phobias

Man curled up in the cornerChanging how people recall memories about phobias may help treat those phobias, according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology.

Phobias—of spiders, heights, leaving the house, needles, and other frequent experiences—are a type of extreme fear that can undermine quality of life. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports 12.5 million Americans have at least one phobia, with 22% experiencing a severe phobia.

Research shows exposure therapy, which slowly acclimates a person to the source of the phobia, has been effective in treating phobias and other forms of anxiety. The process involves steady exposure in a safe environment. A therapist treating a person with a spider phobia might begin by helping that person think of spiders, and ultimately progress—usually over several months—to having a spider in the person’s presence. The idea is to help the person form a new, good memory of the thing or environment that causes anxiety, but this new memory can be temporary for some. The study suggests a mechanism by which exposure therapy could be improved and expanded.

Altering Memories to Reduce Phobias

For the study, researchers attempted to disrupt memory formation in people with arachnophobia (fear of spiders). They briefly showed photos of spiders to people with arachnophobia, then measured brain activity in the amygdala, a brain region that plays a role in fear. Ten minutes later, researchers showed participants a more extensive display of spider photos, repeating this second step a day later.

According to previous research, if people are reminded of an object as the memory is consolidated, then the memory can be disrupted. By showing repeated spider images in slightly different contexts, researchers hoped to disrupt memory formation.

Compared to the control group, those who viewed the repeated spider images had significantly reduced activity in the amygdala on the second day, suggesting an improvement in phobic symptoms. Participants also reported decreased fear and avoidance of spiders.

New Approaches for Exposure Therapy

The study’s authors suggest these results mean creating instability in a long-held memory prior to exposure can weaken it. This could help clinicians strengthen the efficacy of exposure therapy with simple disruptions in the consolidation of memory.


  1. Brazier, Y. (2016, August 29). Replacing old memories with new for people who fear spiders. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/312555.php
  2. Kaplan, J. S., PhD, & Tolin, D. F., PhD. (2011, September 6). Exposure therapy for phobias. Retrieved from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/anxiety/exposure-therapy-anxiety-disorders
  3. Memory activation before exposure reduces life-long fear of spiders. (2016, August 25). Retrieved from http://www.uu.se/en/media/press-releases/press-release/?id=3374&area=3%2C8&typ=pm&lang=en

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  • Celia

    August 31st, 2016 at 11:43 AM

    But what if I do not remember one specific thing that makes me claustrophobic? I mean, there isn’t this one incident that I can pinpoint and say that’s it, that is why I feel like I can’t breathe in small tight spaces. It’s just how I have always felt and even considering doing work on that kind of leaves me feeling smothered.

  • Burton

    August 31st, 2016 at 2:23 PM

    The process of seeing images over and over again of things that sort of frighten you seems like it would cause more harm than good. I am still not sure how the exposure is supposed to desensitize you?

  • andrew

    September 6th, 2016 at 4:49 PM

    This is definitely something that you would work with a trained professional on, not anything that you would want to try to undertake on your own. If something very much scares you like this it could be good to have someone that you trust and that you know supports you and your efforts to overcome this fear working with you.

  • Nova

    September 7th, 2016 at 2:12 PM

    I suppose that I can see where you are going with this, that the more you are exposed to something then the safer that is eventually going to feel for you.

    I didn’t say that it would likely be a pleasant experience, but yeah, just the abundance of time that you are around it would probably make an impact on a lot of people.

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