The Science of Fear

Haloween1Think of Halloween and FEAR comes to mind. From the scary horrors of the darkest of our imagination to just the thought of pestering children knocking on your door! We’ve all been there. Facing our worst nightmares. Heart starts racing. Palms sweating. Stomach turning. But what is fear?

Fear has been with us since the dawn of time. Promoting survival, fear allows the animal kingdom to handle threats through the well-known fight-or-flight response. Faced with danger we either attack and escape or freeze- whatever is best for our survival. So, through evolution, those who feared the “best” survived, reproduced and passed their fears on to their children.

Haloween2So does being a scared-y cat makes you a dream catch?

Not quite. Over the course of time, fear began to evolve in human society. Alongside our rooted survival-fears, we began to develop our own personal fears. Our personal experiences unconsciously shape what we fear, meaning we now have the potential of being scared of anything – from bananas to zebras.

So, with so many potential fears surrounding us, the body’s response to these possible fearful stimuli must be controlled.

Our brains translate information about a fearful scenario – i.e. ghosts, ghouls, upcoming deadlines- and decide the right course of action. The resulting hormonal responses in the body leads to the standard fearful feelings we all know and loath.

Haloween3Advancements in imaging, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), have helped show the key areas of the brain involved – identifying the Amygdala as fear central. This evolutionarily conserved, almond-shaped group of neurons, located deep within the brain is essential for emotion, decision-making and memory – all crucial features of fear.

The amygdala can be activated by a variety of stimuli that entices any of our senses. As the hub of fear, it is believed to process information about the threat, assesses the level of fear, bringing about an appropriate response. Many studies have confirmed the role of the amygdala in fear using visual stimuli.

Amygdala activation shown using MRI

Conscious fear responses provoked by images of common phobias like snakes and spiders occurs alongside amygdala activation. Interestingly, in the absence of conscious stimuli, the amygdala still becomes activated. In these experiments, subjects were again shown the images but only momentarily so they never actually became aware of the threat. However they still suffered impeding fear alongside enhanced amygdala activity.

So with the amygdala being incredibly crucial for fear on all levels of our consciousness, what would life be like without the amygdala?

Well we are actually able to see. A few years ago a case came to light of a 44 year-old woman who was essentially fearless.

Referred to as “SM”, the woman suffered from an incredibly rare, less then 300 cases ever reported, genetic disorder called Urbach-Wiethe Disease. The disorder affects the extracellular matrix, the cells scaffold, meaning the symptoms vary drastically between cases. Usually the disease causes hardening of the brain and, in the case of SM, progressive degeneration of the amygdala.

The case of SM proved to be a unique way to continue exploring the amygdala. SM’s response to situations, from exposure to her once personal fears, a visit to the world’s scariest house to endless viewing of horror films, shown she failed to experience any sort of fear.

Haloween5While this may seem wonderful, we need to remember fear is essential for survival. Never the attacker, SM has found herself as the victim of numerous crimes in her lifetime, including being threatened at knife point and being involved in an abusive relationship. During these horrific ordeals, while feeling emotions like anger, she has never felt fear. Without amygdala function, SM is vulnerable, unable to sense looming threats

So this Halloween, when you feel fear trickling down your spine, remember the most terrifying fear is not being able to feel fear itself!


Post by: Claire Wilson

Some references to sink your fangs into over Halloween

  • Feinstein, J.S., et al., The Human Amygdala and the Induction and Experience of Fear. Current Biology, 2011. 21(1): p. 34-38.
  • Ohman, A., The role of the amygdala in human fear: automatic detection of threat. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2005. 30(10): p. 953-8.[1]
  • Ohman, A., et al., On the unconscious subcortical origin of human fear. Physiol Behav, 2007. 92(1-2): p. 180-5.


3378813599_64d9006e0f_zHave you ever wondered what you would do if you could see in to the future? It’s right up there with invisibility, flight and super-strength as the super-power that people would love to possess.

I don’t mean the type of prediction you get from suspect clairvoyants who read palms or tea leaves. I mean prediction with certainty, every time, guaranteed. The obvious thing would be to predict the winning lottery numbers and watch with knowing satisfaction as each ball drops into place.

Or perhaps, if sport is your thing, you could predict the Grand National winner or the football scores – just like Marty McFly in the Back to the Future films.

After enjoying the rewards for personal gain, maybe you could use your new superpower for good, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, saving kids from dangerous falls and helping stranded old ladies.

Or maybe you could simply use your predictive powers to plan that camping trip to coincide with sunshine for a change. This might even be the most spectacular achievement given the Great British weather and the infamous difficulty in predicting it.

This is clearly the stuff of fantasy but scientists look into the future all the time using mathematical models. The predictions are best guesses of what might happen. Predictions are useful for all kinds of things from students’ predicted A-level grades to the state of the economy.

The problems with predictions is that the further into the future we go, the more uncertain we are of what might happen. If you want to buy a season ticket for your local football team, you can be fairly sure how much it’ll cost in the coming season but who knows how much it’ll cost in ten years’ time?

With the recent cabinet reshuffle bringing more women to the fore, I wondered not just about the positions held by men and women but about equal pay. Research done in 2011 by the Chartered Management Institute predicts that men and women will not be earning equal pay until 2109 if current trends continue. In the 12 month period leading up to the results, a 2.1% and 2.4% increase in salaries was observed for men and women respectively.

How certain should we be about these predictions?

3064351634_2985f244c7_zA comparison was made between the £10,546 gender pay gap in 2011 and £10,031 from the same study the previous year. However, if we work backwards and reduce the current wages by the 2.1% and 2.4% growth rates to get an estimate of last year’s pay gap, this doesn’t match up. By this method, the estimated previous pay gap is about £10,421- giving a smaller absolute difference between the two years. As there is an inconsistency between the current and the previous year, so how can the predictions using the same growth rates be taken seriously out to 2109?

To emphasise this point further a similar report in 2008 about equal pay for women being ‘several generations away’, found that women’s pay increased by 6.8% over the year, compared with 6.6% for the men. The associated statistics then show that women will not receive equal pay equal pay until 2195

This very simple comparison highlights one of the problems with predictions: they are just a guess. In the case of using the same salary rates to predict way into the future, it should be made clear that these figures are uncertain at best and at worst, simply a fantasy- just like having superpowers.

Post by: Nathan Green

The Fractal Factor: Patterns in Nature – The Building of the MegaMenger at this year’s Manchester Science Festival

Aristotle once said “In all things of nature there is something of the marvellous.” Living in a world brimming with technology, it is easy to forget the beauty and wonder of the world around us -unless it is accompanied by an Instagram filter, of course.

Despite the glorious diversity of the world we live in, we commonly see naturally occurring image1patterns. While early Greek philosophers were the first to investigate these shapes, the science behind these patterns still draws curiosity now in the 21st century. At the upcoming Manchester Science Festival an attempt to build the world’s largest fractal (the mathematical model behind some these patterns in nature) is taking place in the hope of enthusing and exciting the public about the wonders of maths.

What is a fractal?

How do trees grow? A single root divides into two branches which in turn each divide into two and so on and so forth. In the end the pattern made by a single twig is the same as the complex branches of a giant oak. So no matter at which scale you look at it, the patterns made by the branches are similar, and this self-similarity is mathematically termed a fractal.

image3These self-similar patterns are not only seen in trees, but also rivers and clouds, the cardiovascular system, broccoli – the list is endless. Since the 17th century the mathematics concept underlying these shapes has been investigated, with the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot coining the term fractal in 1975. He defined a fractal as “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is image2(at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole”.

So – in a nutshell – fractals are infinite patterns made by repeating the same process over and over again to form structures which appear the same no matter which scale you look at them. They also happen to be an important and commonly occurring part of the world we live in!

The MegaMenger Project

The 8th annual Manchester Science Festival is set to run from 23rd October to 2nd
November. Showcasing a wide range of playful and imaginative projects to enthuse the public, one of this year’s star attraction events is the building of the MegaMenger. Scatted across twenty cities worldwide, a series of Menger Sponges will be displayed which will hopefully form the world’s largest 3D fractal – the MegaMenger!

How are Menger Sponges made?

Menger Sponges are fractal cubes named after their inventor Karl Menger. To form a Menger Sponge, you begin with a cube and divide it into 27 smaller cubes. Then you remove the smaller cube in the middle of each face and in the very centre of the cube. This is a level-1 Menger Sponge. By simply repeating the process of dividing each of these small cubes and removing central cubes, level-2, level-3 and so on cubes are formed.


In the MegaMenger project, each city will build a level-3 cube. These 3D fractals will be made of 20 cubes, each made of 20 smaller cubes that -you guessed it- are made of another 20 smaller cubes. The smallest cubes are simply made of 6 business cards. Using over a million business cards, the twenty level-3 Menger Sponges will form a distributed level-4 sponge – the largest ever made out of business cards.

How to get involved?

For a week starting from 20th October these fractals will begin to take shape across the world. Here at Manchester Science Festival on the Saturday and Sunday, 24th and 25th October, drop-in sessions are taking place at the Museum of Science & Industry so you can pop by to witness the build in action and find out more about the magic of fractals!

By visiting you can get more information about the enormous world record attempt and print off Menger cards so you can make your own 3D fractal.

Happy building!!!!

Useful links

• Manchester Science Festival.

• More about Fractals.

October these fractals will begin to take shape across the world. Here and 25th October, drop-in sessions

Post by: Claire Wilson

Exercise and brain power: how does physical activity help us think?

We might believe that the best way to improve grades at school is to spend more time studying, even at the cost of physical activity. According to research however, we might be wrong. In fact, girls and boys with high level of cardiovascular fitness do better in subjects such as English, science and maths than those less active. A healthy set of heart and lungs appear to have more influence on grades than factors such as self-esteem, parents’ income, weight at birth, prenatal smoking and your subjective academic ability.

Exercise improveimage1s goal-directed activity. This includes selecting, planning and coordinating actions, as well as ignoring distracters and managing several pieces of information at once allowing inhibition and flexible thinking. The cognitive control involved is supported by the frontal parts of the brain, which continue to develop well into our twenties. Furthermore, compared to their sedentary peers, physically active adolescents also show better memory – a function supported by the temporal region of the brain (behind the temples).

What might be more important for those of us well past our adolescent years is that exercise helps to maintain mental abilities in old age. Physical fitness at midlife reduces the risk of dementia, and in those with dementia physical activity can attenuate its progress. This is because physically active seniors tend to have larger volumes of the brain in areas that typically shrink in dementia, such as the hippocampus.

But how exactly can sport increase our academic performance and thinking power? One way is by reducing children’s disrupting behaviour and increasing their ability to attend to the task in class. Also physical activity goes in hand with better brain structure, with a larger volume of some areas. Such beneficial effect of exercise on the brain could be related to the change in the levels of the substances that stimulate the growth of brain cells. It seems that when sedentary people undertake exercise, they produce more of these growth factors immediately following activity.

In those, however, who exercise regularly, the mechanism might be slightly different. Instead of producing more of the growth substance, the brain becomes more sensitive to it. Related to thinking prowess, exercising can also make us feel more lively and energetic, allowing us to think better. This is because physical activity enhances levels of certain chemical messengers in the brain, e.g. acetylcholine. These messengers activate areas of the brain supporting cognition, emotion and arousal. Finally, in older adults exercise seems to help to recruit compensatory brain areas, which help in completing the tasks.

Li et al. (2014) Acute Aerobic Exercise Increased Cortical Activity during Working Memory: A Functional MRI Study in Female College Students. PLoS One  9(6): e99222. Published online Jun 9, 2014. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0099222
Li et al. (2014) Acute Aerobic Exercise Increased Cortical Activity during Working Memory: A Functional MRI Study in Female College Students. PLoS One 9(6): e99222. Published online Jun 9, 2014. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0099222

How much should we exercise then and what sort of exercise would be best? Opinions are mixed, but it seems that moderate aerobic activity might be optimal, although strengthening exercise also brings cognitive benefits in seniors. Before undertaking physical activity we also need to remember that exercise carries risk and that it might be worth asking our doctor for advice. One thing is certain though, the human body is a machine designed to move!

Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek

A Scientist by Any Other Name…

Think of a famous Manchester-based scientist and your mind almost certainly conjures up
John Dalton (famous for his work on Atomic theory), Alan Turing (famous for the Engima
machine, and for being a mathematician and NOT a scientist) or Ernest Rutherford (famous for his work on radioactivity). Some of the more cerebral of you might even have thrown William Sturgeon (an English physicist, responsible for the first electromagnets) or Hans Geiger (a German physicist who helped to discover the atomic nucleus) into the mix. I would be surprised if anyone would have named Peter Mark Roget, yet we all use his research on an almost daily basis.

Peter Mark Roget (1779 – 1869) (Photo credit: Medical Portrait Gallery)

Roget, the son of a Swiss pastor, was born in London in 1779. He read Mathematics and Medicine at Edinburgh University, where his prestigious talent saw him graduate as a Doctor of Medicine at the ripe old age of 19. After his time in Edinburgh, he moved back south of the border and settled into a role at the Manchester Infirmary, where he was made chief surgeon in 1804, at the preposterous age of 25. His main work at the Manchester Infirmary was concerned with tuberculosis, and the potential effects of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as an anaesthetic, publishing several papers on both topics. He also found time to form the Manchester Medical School.

In 1808 Roget moved back down to London, where he helped to establish the London Royal Society of Medicine as well as the University of London, whilst continuing to publish work on human, animal, and plant physiology and health. He also found time to serve as the secretary to the Royal Society, invent a pocket chess set and provide inspiration for the development of the Zoetrope (a cylindrical-shaped toy which displayed a set of pictures giving the illusion of movement – a precursor of modern cinema).

Inside the beautiful Portico Library (Photo credit: Jacqueline Poggi)

In 1840 Roget retired, enabling him to begin work on his greatest accomplishment – the snappily titled “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition”, which was first  published in 1852 (you can see its original format here). He first began compiling his thesaurus when secretary of the Portico Library in Manchester, which – for those of you who have yet to visit – is the perfect way to spend an afternoon over a book and a pot of tea.

Roget’s remarks in the preface to the first edition, in which he observes that, “Since my retirement from the duties of secretary to the Royal Society… I resolved to embark in an undertaking that has given me incessant occupation”, give some indication as the man’s formidable work ethic. He sadly spent most of his life battling depression (both his father and his wife died young, whilst his uncle committed suicide in front of him), and there is some thought that this gave rise to his work on the thesaurus.

A quite exceptional polymath, whose professional life and accomplishments leave a lot to be admired (not to mention envious of), I would like to extend my personal gratitude to this great man, without whom my lexicon would be as empty as a pachyderm’s trunk.

Post by: Sam Illingworth