Taking fright: Elizabeth Phelps to discuss how fear can be diminished

A woman sits in a bare room

Fear—once acquired—can be diminished. That will be a central tenet of a public lecture that Elizabeth Phelps, the Silver Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University, will deliver at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute on April 18. In Changing Fear, Phelps will explore the neural mechanisms underlying a range of techniques that can be used to diminish fear in humans. She will also discuss how stress affects those mechanisms and how fear might be more persistently inhibited by targeting memory reconsolidation.

“Cognitive psychology research on emotion and memory has focused primarily on explicit or episodic memory,” Phelps says. “These studies have shown that episodic memory is enhanced with mild arousal. In addition, emotion may alter the characteristics of memory so that memories for emotional events seem more detailed and vivid, even when they are not more accurate. In a number of studies we are exploring the neural systems underlying emotion’s influence on episodic memory accuracy and the subjective sense of remembering.”

Phelps has extended those studies to behavioral and imaging studies of real-life emotional events, particularly memories of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Phelps earned her doctorate in psychology from Princeton University, with a specialty in cognition and cognitive neuroscience.