Can Touch Help Us Overcome Fear?

Seeking new ways to motivate my students and really get them to embrace our topics, I bought a virtual reality headset and brought it to class. I think slides and lectures are fine (if you don’t care too much about student participation), but there’s nothing quite like watching your students scream happily to help a teacher feel like their lesson is going through.

    Dr. Lonny Meinecke (photo modified by Jaylen Davis, used with permission)

One of my students suffers from visual fright and tactile comfort

Source: Dr. Lonny Meinecke (photo modified by Jaylen Davis, used with permission)

Walking on the board

I teach psychology, so the incredibly real sense of phobia you get from the 3D Plank Walk app just seems like a ticket. The app I found allows the wearer to feel like they’re on top of a skyscraper, staring downward. Even better, it has options that tempt them to get out on a plank suspended hundreds of feet in the air — and descend if they dare. The plank creaks with each step and reaction designed to scare them back into the relative safety of the elevator.

It’s funny to see them balancing precariously on something invisible, as if they were afraid of falling off the floor of our classroom. as you can see I know That simulated altitude is not real. that they I know There is solid ground under (and around) it. They can even He hears Their classmates tell them it’s going to be fine.

But the facts do not matter. Their thoughts do not help. The headset continues to whisper: “Beware! We will fall!” No matter how brave they make their prediction, each student takes turns learning how powerful the illusion is from those expectations.

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Optical shelf

Is this new? Not right. A long time ago, a study was conducted on infants using nothing but a glass plate and the illusion of depth (Gibson & Walk, 1960). Oddly enough, more age and more intelligence are not a huge advantage when it comes to fear of heights. Contrary to what you might expect, when we are born we fear less of it as we grow up (and learn what to fear). We seem to acquire this strange phobia when we gain the ability to crawl (around 7-9 months).

From Gibson Walk (1960).  Copyright 1960 Nature Publishing Group., CC BY 4.0 Wikimedia Commons

Optical cliff experience

Source: From Gibson and Walk (1960). Copyright 1960 Nature Publishing Group., CC BY 4.0 Wikimedia Commons

Now, this wouldn’t be a very good psychological experience if all I did was see if they were afraid of heights. No – I wanted to see if we could reduce or dispel this terrifying feeling by using one of their other senses (therapeutic touch, for example). We humans focus too much on visual processing, and not enough on our sense of touch. We call this tactile processing in psychology.

Non-human animals still rely on touch more than we do, especially when they are in need of comfort (Harlow, 1958). We, on the other hand, have kind of become a ball As a species (afraid of being touched) and relies a lot on facts. I thought to myself: Perhaps the touch of an invisible hand on the ankle or shoulder would be enough to overcome the powerful illusion of depth that enters their eyes and ears.

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Angels on the plank

This is what we did. I asked another student to hold the ankle or shoulder of the student wearing the headset. The result was instant. Each person wearing a headset expressed a sense of invisible relief (despite the constant visual and auditory feedback from the VR headset).

And if they closed their eyes – or peeked from under the headset – the illusion of impending danger had vanished, and that frightful and comfortable phantom hand took hold of their fear of falling. At one point we stood on either side of the treadmill and took her by the hand, escorting her to the edge of the plank. It was as if an invisible angel was propped up on her sides.

A lesson in rest

What did we take from this? Well, we’ve learned that paying more attention to your sense of touch than to your eyes and ears can reduce your fear — it reminds you how safe you really are. So, if your feet keep telling you “yes, there’s floor here” but your brain is constantly telling you to ignore your feet, maybe it’s time to listen to your feet a lot.

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But how does this apply to me, you ask? Well, we watch a lot of news these days, right? And they are of horrific things happening to someone else that bombards our eyes and ears every single day – even though you and I are perfectly safe. To attract viewers, the media necessarily tries to make its viewers feel as if they are in imminent danger. Take, for example, all the pressures surrounding the midterm elections, and fears about the war in Ukraine (Kammer et al., 2022).

Watching the news every day seems to increase the viewer’s feelings of distress and even generate a kind of phobia in the future (anticipatory anxiety). To mediate this, perhaps if we focus on what our physical selves actually touch (rather than what our mental selves are watching on TV), we can overcome some of that mental anxiety. Perhaps, like my students and I did with a VR app, we can overcome the illusion that we’re going to fall off the couch. Look away – and suddenly, things are no longer as bad as they seem.

My humble advice? Change the channel by closing your eyes and focusing on the person next to you. Somewhere in the dark there is an angel of sensation, reminding you that everything is already fine.


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