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    Scary Science: How Your Body Responds to Fear

    (Article from livescience.com)

    Cultural influences can lead people to be fearful of certain things, such as black cats or killer clowns. But there are also universal triggers of fear, according to neuropsychiatrist Dr. Katherine Brownlowe, chief of the Division of Neurobehavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

    "Typically, those are things that are going to make you die," Brownlowe told Live Science.

    "Heights, animals, lightning, spiders, somebody running after you in a dark alley — generally, people have some kind of fear response to those kinds of things," she said.

    Fear is, first and foremost, a survival mechanism. When the senses detect a source of stress that might pose a threat, the brain activates a cascade of reactions that prime us either to battle for our lives or to escape as quickly as possible — a reaction in mammals that is known as the "fight-or-flight" response.

    Fear is regulated by a part of the brain within the temporal lobes known as the amygdala, Brownlowe told Live Science. When stress activates the amygdala, it temporarily overrides conscious thought so that the body can divert all of its energy to facing the threat — whatever that might be.

    "The release of neurochemicals and hormones causes an increase in heart rate and breathing, shunts blood away from the intestines and sends more to the muscles, for running or fighting," Brownlowe explained. "It puts all the brain's attention into 'fight-or-flight.'"

    Some of our bodies' responses to mortal terror are throwbacks to mechanisms that served our ancient ancestors, though these responses aren't as useful to us anymore. When fear raises goose bumps on our skin, it makes the hair on our arms stand up — which doesn't seem to help us either fight an enemy or escape from one. But when our early human ancestors were covered with hair, fluffing it up could have made them look bigger and more imposing, Brownlowe said.

    Freezing in place like a deer caught in a car's headlights is another frequent response to being scared, and Brownlowe noted that this behavior is commonly seen in animals that are preyed upon.

    "If you freeze, then the predator is less likely to see you and pay attention to you — and, hopefully, less likely to eat you," she said.

    The emotional response that we feel when we're afraid serves a purpose, as well — it heightens alertness, keeping the body and brain focused on staying safe until the threat is neutralized.

    Even babies can be fearful of things such as loud noises, sudden movements and unfamiliar faces, and young children may be terrified of things that adults know aren't real — like a monster hiding under the bed or a boogeyman in the closet. It isn't until kids reach age 7 or so that they can differentiate between real-world threats and threats that live only in their imaginations, Brownlowe said.

    What makes humans' responses to fear different from other animals' is that people can process that fear and tamp it down once they consciously understand that they are not really in danger.

    "We can get startled, but instead of running away like bunny rabbits, we reassess the situation and figure out that we don't need to respond in a 'fight-or-flight' manner," Brownlowe said. "And then we can just get on with our day."

    Some people even deliberately seek out the experience of being frightened — they watch horror movies, brave the terrifying drop of towering roller coasters and do whatever generates a feeling of immediate personal risk. According to Brownlowe, they're enjoying the chemical aftermath that follows a rush of fear — a feeling that can be euphoric.

    "Once the 'fight-or-flight' signals cease, the brain releases neurotransmitters and hormones that mediate what we call the 'rest-and-digest' system," Brownlowe said. "The heart rate is coming down, the breathing is slowing, goose bumps are relaxing. There's a sense of internal cognitive relief in the body, and that feels good."

    The modern world comes with a number of stresses that early humans never faced and never could have imagined — financial burdens, performance anxieties, and a number of other social pressures that can generate fear and crushing anxiety. A good old-fashioned scare can make some of the everyday fears we face seem less terrifying, Brownlowe added.

    "It gives people perspective," she said. "If you're anxious about talking to your boss about getting a raise and then you get the crap scared out of you, talking to your boss is no big deal."

    Original article on Live Science.

    Materials may lead to self-healing smartphones.

    A new material not only heals itself, but it also stretches up to 50 times its usual size; these properties could fix your phone's battery if it cracks or prevent it from breaking in the first place.
    Credit: Wang lab

     

    Taking a cue from the Marvel Universe, researchers report that they have developed a self-healing polymeric material with an eye toward electronics and soft robotics that can repair themselves. The material is stretchable and transparent, conducts ions to generate current and could one day help your broken smartphone go back together again.

    The researchers will present their work today at the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

    "When I was young, my idol was Wolverine from the X-Men," Chao Wang, Ph.D., says. "He could save the world, but only because he could heal himself. A self-healing material, when carved into two parts, can go back together like nothing has happened, just like our human skin. I've been researching making a self-healing lithium ion battery, so when you drop your cell phone, it could fix itself and last much longer."

    The key to self-repair is in the chemical bonding. Two types of bonds exist in materials, Wang explains. There are covalent bonds, which are strong and don't readily reform once broken; and noncovalent bonds, which are weaker and more dynamic. For example, the hydrogen bonds that connect water molecules to one another are non-covalent, breaking and reforming constantly to give rise to the fluid properties of water. "Most self-healing polymers form hydrogen bonds or metal-ligand coordination, but these aren't suitable for ionic conductors," Wang says.

    Wang's team at the University of California, Riverside, turned instead to a different type of non-covalent bond called an ion-dipole interaction, a force between charged ions and polar molecules. "Ion-dipole interactions have never been used for designing a self-healing polymer, but it turns out that they're particularly suitable for ionic conductors," Wang says. The key design idea in the development of the material was to use a polar, stretchable polymer, poly(vinylidene fluoride-co-hexafluoropropylene), plus a mobile, ionic salt. The polymer chains are linked to each other by ion-dipole interactions between the polar groups in the polymer and the ionic salt.

    The resulting material could stretch up to 50 times its usual size. After being torn in two, the material automatically stitched itself back together completely within one day.

    As a test, the researchers generated an "artificial muscle" by placing a non-conductive membrane between two layers of the ionic conductor. The new material responded to electrical signals, bringing motion to these artificial muscles, so named because biological muscles similarly move in response to electrical signals (though Wang's materials are not intended for medical applications).

    For the next step, the researchers are working on altering the polymer to improve the material's properties. For example, they are testing the material in harsh conditions, such as high humidity. "Previous self-healing polymers haven't worked well in high humidity, Wang says. "Water gets in there and messes things up. It can change the mechanical properties. We are currently tweaking the covalent bonds within the polymer itself to get these materials ready for real-world applications."