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Jeansok Kim’s research into fear responses in animals is featured in this Scientia article.

Understanding Fear in Animals

Research into animal fear typically utilises laboratory techniques based on Pavlovian fear conditioning, but these approaches are limited. Professor Jeansok Kim, from the Department of Psychology, University of Washington (USA) has developed a much more realistic way to study fear that closely mimics risky conditions in the wild. New discoveries by Professor Kim and his team are challenging existing paradigms and providing exciting insights into the underlying brain mechanisms of fear in both animals and humans.

Time for a New Approach

All animals have to search for resources, including food, water, and shelter. Ironically, while searching is absolutely essential for their survival, it may also bring about their demise if they encounter a predator. To confront this dilemma, animals have developed the ability to feel afraid. In human terms, fear may not be seen as beneficial, but, for animals in the wild, recognising potentially dangerous situations – as a result of genetics and experience – may be what keeps them alive.

This ability to instinctively recognise and respond appropriately to certain dangers (even threats never encountered before) varies for each species, depending on their environment. For example, the main fear response for the woodland deer mouse is to freeze and this confuses its predator’s sensitivity to movement. However, the desert deer mouse opts to leap as high as possible to avoid the snake’s strike.

For a long time now, research into fear has relied on Pavlovian fear conditioning, where an innocuous stimulus (like a tone, for example) is associated with an aversive stimulus (such as an electric shock) which, in turn, activates a fear response. In this case, animals learn quickly that a tone is followed by an electric shock and start demonstrating conditioned fear responses as soon as they see the tone.

While the Pavlovian fear conditioning paradigm has allowed many major developments, Professor Jeansok Kim, based at the Department of Psychology, University of Washington (USA), believes it is now time for a new approach. According to Professor Kim, fear conditioning approach does not allow us to explore the much more dynamic range of fear responses that animals need to survive in the wild.

To observe a wider variety of responses, Professor Kim and his team developed a much more naturalistic environment to study rats, where the animals’ fear responses are not confined in small cages but instead expressed freely in a large enclosure, with a safe nest and a risky foraging area. In this enclosure, just as in the real-world, food does not come easy: the rats need to leave the safety of their nest, and face a LEGO robot called Robogator that is programmed to surge toward the animal as it emerges from the nesting area in search of food. With moving eyes, jaw, and tail, the Robogator simulates an unpredictable attack by a predator, allowing Professor Kim and his team to obtain data that is not possible with real predators.

Read the entire article here.