In Paris, I witnessed my first professional ballet performance with Le Lac des cygnes, or Swan Lake, performed by the Universal Ballet company.
Both the dancing and the music were incredibly beautiful, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the grace of the dancers and the harmony of the music.
Which is why I can understand how audiences in the 1900s must have been shocked after listening to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring right after a delightful traditional ballet like Swan Lake. In class, we learned about how Stravinsky’s orchestral and ballet piece debuted in 1913, surprising audiences and causing such strong emotions that in early performances the audiences actually began rioting in the theater. If you listen to it yourself, you can understand how the melody is the furthest from graceful or traditional—if you can even locate what you think is the melody, that is. Personally, I found it very uncomfortable to listen to at first, and I felt my heart rate pick up slightly—and I have heard a lot of weird things! Even though audiences were scandalized when it first came out, by 1981 this piece was popular enough to be incorporated into a famous animated movie called Fantasia, where it was paired with the animations of the Big Bang, dinosaurs fighting in the rain, and then their extinction. (My description doesn’t do it justice, so check out an excerpt here)
The reason why I found this interesting is that I have a crippling fear of dinosaurs–even though I should be an adult, I am still terrified of creatures that no longer exist on this planet and that I will never encounter. But this had me wondering: like many other people, I watched all the Fantasia movies when I was younger. Could my fear of dinosaurs stem from the fact that as a child, I watched this Rite of Spring segment and was scared by the music, but then associated it with what I was seeing on the screen—dinosaurs? Or in the words of Wong et al. (2019), “How does a stimulus never associated with danger become frightening?”
In their recent study, they discuss the concept of how your sensory and emotional experiences share common elements that can overlap. Their example is of a hiker in a rainforest: on the first day, the hiker hears an unfamiliar sound and sees an unfamiliar animal. If the next day the hiker sees that unfamiliar animal on a poster labeled “extremely dangerous”, then when the hiker hears that unfamiliar sound, they may become scared even though they were never directly conditioned to be afraid of the sound. To investigate this phenomenon, they tested how rats can integrate a “sound-light” memory with a “light-danger” memory. They did this by mimicking the hiker scenario: they first exposed the mice to a sound and a light, then a light and a shock, followed by the official testing of the sound and light separately to observe the fear response in the mouse.
They found that the mice showed fear in response to the sound, even though the sound was never associated with shock. In addition, they discovered that this process of association likely takes place in the perirhinal cortex, as rats who were damaged in this area of the brain were not able to associate the sound with danger. They concluded that stimuli could be associated together in a fear memory network, and that memories stored in one region of the brain can be retrieved with information elsewhere in the brain in a process called “memory-chaining” (Wong et al., 2019). It would be helpful, however, if they had done more testing to see whether this effect is observed for all associations, or whether there are some situations where this associative “memory-chaining” does not occur.
Furthermore, another study by Soeter and Kindt (2015) presented data that also supports this conclusion, but specifically investigating reconsolidation of memories—a critical aspect of memory formation and retrieval. They viewed any fear memory as a “flexible representation of the original learning experience”, and therefore tested what types of cues could trigger fear memory. They found that even abstract cues that are not directly associated with a potentially dangerous stimulus could trigger reconsolidation of memories (Soeter & Kindt, 2015), which provides another perspective towards fear learning and fear associations. These studies were particularly interesting as their results have implications in conditions such as anxiety disorders, as they often involve learned fear associations. By understanding the connections and conditions for consolidation and retrieval of these fear memories, the foundation of knowledge for future research grows and can lead to the development of potential therapies.
I’m still not sure about whether my fear of dinosaurs were from my association of the fear I felt hearing the Rite of Spring and seeing the dinosaurs, but with this study it seems like it could be possible. Still, definitely staying away from any Jurassic Park remakes for now!
Soeter M, Kindt M (2015) Retrieval cues that trigger reconsolidation of associative fear memory are not necessarily an exact replica of the original learning experience. Front. Behav. Nerosci. 9:112.
Wong FS, Westbrook RF, Holmes NM (2019) ‘Online’ integration of sensory and fear memories in the rat medial temporal lobe. eLife. 8:e47085.
Image 1 taken by me
Image 2 from http://quixotando.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/the-rite-of-spring-349.jpg?w=1024
Image 3 from Wong et al (2019)