Spoooooooooooky science

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Hundreds of adults will be at Edmonton’s space science centre this week to learn why it’s okay to be afraid of that giant man-eating spider on your back.

Some 800 people will likely be at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton on Thursday for an adults-only Dark Matters event on the science of fears and phobias.

Dark Matters is an ongoing series at the Telus that encourages adults to drink and socialize while learning about the latest scientific research.

Halloween and spooky topics have always proved popular at the Telus, so they decided to go with a scary theme for this month’s Dark Matters, said staff scientist Marie McConnell.

“Fear is there to stop us from doing things that might kill us,” she said, but also comes with an endorphin rush some find thrilling.

Thursday’s events will feature talks on nuclear power (frightful or not?) and the bio-psychology of fear. Guests will also get to explore a haunted hospital in virtual reality, paint with fluorescent bacteria, and try on some horror film make-up.

“We’ve got all sorts of experts coming that are going to ask you to face your fears,” McConnell said.

Bug guy Peter Heule is bringing a black widow spider from the Royal Alberta Museum for arachnophobes, for example, while haemophobes will get to learn their blood type courtesy the Canadian Blood Service. The Edmonton Reptile Society will also have all sorts of scaly beasts for herpetophobes to snuggle.

Face your fears

“Hiding under your blanket is not a very good way to go through your life,” McConnell said, when asked why people would want to experience this spookiness.

Facing your fears through fun events like this can help you better manage the everyday fears in your life (such as that mysterious noise outside your tent), she said.

Fear is actually good from an evolutionary perspective, said MacEwan University psychology chair Lynne Honey, who will speak on the bio-psychology of fear at the Telus Thursday. It’s a sign of danger, and is our body’s way of telling us to avoid it.

“We come from a long and unbroken line of people who managed to run away from scary (poop),” she said.

The problem is that our body’s fear system isn’t very versatile and reacts the same way to a public speech as it does to an angry tiger, Honey said: your digestive track shuts down (which can lead you to soil your pants), your vision narrows, your heart races, and your healing stops – all steps to maximize your flight-or-fight ability.

“It’s a better-safe-than-sorry kind of system,” Honey explained – as far as evolution is concerned, so long as you survive to reproduce, it doesn’t matter if you overreact to stimuli that aren’t real threats.

There’s even evidence that some fears may be hardwired into people, she said. One study found that babies looked longer at a picture of a spider than another similarly complex image, suggesting an ingrained suspicion of potentially poisonous arachnids.

Fears that get out of control become phobias, Honey said. While researchers have yet to determine their cause, they have developed many treatments for them.

Fear and excitement are pretty much identical on a biological level, and recognizing that can help us reframe scary experiences, Honey said. If you’ve got sweaty palms and knots in your stomach when you’re about to ask someone out for a date, recognize that you might be facing an exciting opportunity rather than a scary threat.

“I think when we reframe those experiences, they don’t seem quite as scary anymore.”

The Dark Matters event (which is for guests 18 and older only) runs from 6:30 to 10 p.m. this Oct. 19. Tickets are about $20 in advance and more at the door. Visit telusworldofscienceedmonton.ca/dark-matters for details.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.