July 12, 2011 at 8:33 AM ET
Picture this: you're sitting in a garden on a pretty summer day, and along comes a butterfly and a bumblebee. Which grabs your attention first?
Evolution would suggest that we're primed to detect threats, so we might pay attention to the buzzing little bee. But butterflies are pretty. And here are some complications: what if we're especially afraid of bees or especially entranced by butterflies?
The answers could provide insight into phobias, since we pay close and immediate attention to things that scare the bejesus out of us, even if they're probably harmless and there are more interesting things around. Now, a new study aims to discover how we get distracted by things that are (or aren't) scary.
"Very intense stimuli, such as bright lights or loud sounds, capture our attention automatically, "says study co-author Helena Purkis. "Other types of stimuli, such as threats like snakes and spiders, supposedly grab our attention in the same way."
Instead of bees and butterflies, the researchers turned to arachnoids and cult TV: they exposed 72 British subjects to a variety of photos, including some of spiders and characters or objects (including the T.A.R.D.I.S.) from the British show "Dr. Who." (The researchers are proud of this, noting that "we are the first study to use images from Dr. Who for the purposes of scientific research!" Positively wibbly-wobbly!)
The idea was to figure out whether people would be more automatically distracted by spider photos because spiders are potentially threatening. It turns out they were -- but only if they were afraid of spiders to begin with.
"The higher the participants ranked on "Dr. Who" fandom, the more attention they allocated to Dr. Who," Purkin said. "Similarly, the more fear they had of spiders, the more attention was allocated to spiders."
Some subjects were both spider phobes and fans of "Dr. Who." They were more distracted by the spiders, said Purkis, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia, whose study appears in the journal Emotion.
The study suggests that non-phobic people don't come pre-programmed to immediately notice a possible threat like a spider, even though it's an age-old threat to humans. They might first notice something they're especially interested in, like a bit of pop culture that's only been around for a little while.
The next step is to determine how to train people to not pay attention to certain threats, Purkis said.
That may be tough for arachnophobic "Dr. Who" fans who might especially appreciate the characters called The Daleks. ("EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!") It turns out that the Empress of Racnoss, a character in the show, is a giant spider.
"The Empress," Purkis said, "would be the ultimate attention- grabbing stimulus for any Dr. Who-loving spider phobe."