Can Touch Help Us Overcome Fear?

In pursuit of new ways to motivate my students and get them to really embrace our topics, I bought a virtual reality headset and brought it to class. Slides and lectures are fine, I guess (if you don’t care much about student engagement), but there’s nothing like watching your students squeal with joy to help a teacher feel like his lesson is going well.

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One of my students experienced both visual fear and haptic comfort

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

Walk the plank

I study psychology, so the incredibly real feeling of phobia you get from a 3D plank-walking app seems just the ticket. The app I found lets the wearer feel exactly like he or she is at the top of a skyscraper, staring down. Better than that, it has options that tempt them to walk out onto a plank suspended hundreds of feet up in the air – and step off if they dare. The plank creaks with each step and the feedback is designed to scare them back into the relative safety of an elevator.

It is strange to watch them balance precariously on an invisible thing, as if they are afraid of falling from the floor of our classroom. You see, them Know That the simulated height is not real. them Know There is a solid floor under (and all around) them. They can even listen Their classmates tell them it will be fine.

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But the facts don’t matter. Their thoughts do not help. The headset just keeps whispering: “Careful! We’re going to fall!” No matter how brave they predict they will be, each student takes turns to learn how much stronger the illusion is than the predictions.

The visual cliff

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

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

The visual cliff experiment

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

Now, this wouldn’t make for a very good psychological experiment 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 using one of their other senses (therapeutic touch, for example). We humans put too much emphasis on visual processing, and not nearly enough on our sense of touch. We call that haptic processing in psychology.

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Nonhuman animals still rely on touch more than we do, especially when they need comfort (Harlow, 1958). We, on the other hand, have become a kind of Half-phobic As a species (afraid to be touched) and rely far too much on facts. I thought to myself: maybe the touch of an invisible hand on an ankle or shoulder would be enough to overcome the powerful illusion of depth that enters their eyes and ears.

Angels on the plank

That’s what we did. I instructed another student to grasp the ankle or shoulder of the student wearing the headset. The result was immediate. Each headset wearer expressed a sense of invisible comfort (despite the continuing visual and auditory feedback from the virtual reality headset).

And they closed their eyes – or looked out from under the headset – the illusion of an imminent danger disappeared, and The terrible, comforting, phantom hand reigned over their fear. One time we even stood on both sides of the plank walker, took her by the hand, led her out to the very edge. It was like an invisible angel on both sides of her.

A lesson in comfort

What did we take away from this? Well, we 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 a floor here” but your brain keeps telling you to ignore your feet, maybe it’s time to listen to your feet more often.

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But how does this get to me, you ask? Well, we watch a lot of news these days, right? An illusion of terrible things happening to someone else bombards our eyes and ears every day – even though you and I are perfectly safe. To attract viewers, the media necessarily tries to make the viewers feel like they are in imminent danger. Take, for example, all the pressure over the midterm elections, and worry about the war in Ukraine (Camer et al., 2022).

Watching the news every day seems to intensify viewer malaise, and even generates a kind of future phobia (Anticipatory anxiety). To mediate that, maybe if we concentrate on what our physical self is actually touching (instead of what our mental self is watching on TV), we can overcome some of the mental anxiety. Maybe, like me and my students with the VR app, we can get the illusion that we’re going to fall off the couch. Look away – and suddenly it’s not as bad as it seems.

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

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