Scared of spiders?

It sounds strange, but being shown one at the exact time of your heartbeat might help.

And the approach could be applied to any other phobia – whether that's clowns, heights or even types of food.

An author of a new study describing the intervention said most of us have phobias, and while current treatments usually involved exposing people to their fears, these could take a long time.

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"Our work shows that how we respond to our fears can depend on whether we see them at the time our heart beats, or between heartbeats," said Professor Hugo Critchley, chair of psychiatry at Brighton and Sussex Medical School.

"You could say we're within a heartbeat of helping people beat their phobias."

In phobias, disproportionately intense, disabling anxiety is induced by specific situations or triggers.

Treatment is often prolonged and involves a graded exposure to fear-evoking stimuli, but has made some progress in recent years through the use of computerised therapy.

Critchley and his team were able to show how phobias could be treated more effectively by linking this to the patients' own heart rhythms.

The new research had previously revealed how bodily arousal signals that occur with each individual heartbeat can change the emotional impact of potential threats, for example, when experienced during a heartbeat they can appear greater.

In a proof-of-concept clinical trial, computerised exposure therapy for spider phobia was combined with online measurements of heartbeats.

For one group of patients, pictures of spiders were presented in time with heartbeats, while for another patient group, pictures of spiders were presented in-between heartbeats.

A third control group saw spiders randomly in the therapy sessions.

Although there was some improvement among all patients, as you would expect in exposure therapy, those individuals exposed to spiders in time with their own heartbeats showed a greater reduction in self-reported fear of spiders, anxiety levels and their physiological responses to spiders.

Panda sex not black and white

Scientists found pandas' certain vocalisations were signs that mating was more likely to go ahead, and that there were different ones just before and during sex. Photo / 123RF
Scientists found pandas' certain vocalisations were signs that mating was more likely to go ahead, and that there were different ones just before and during sex. Photo / 123RF

In other odd findings, US and Chinese scientists have found that recordings can help pandas to mate.

And those recordings aren't Barry White or Marvin Gaye, but the vocalisations that the endangered animals make before and during sex.

They found certain vocalisations were signs that mating was more likely to go ahead and that there were different ones just before and during sex.

Why was that so important?

Knowing a panda's courting repertoire could help conservation managers predict which pairings were likely to result in cubs.

Are traffic lights about to become obsolete?

US scientists have been using what's known as control theory to develop algorithms that will enable driverless cars to talk to one another. Photo / 123RF
US scientists have been using what's known as control theory to develop algorithms that will enable driverless cars to talk to one another. Photo / 123RF

Imagine a daily commute that's orderly instead of chaotic.

Connected and automated vehicles could provide that relief by adjusting to driving conditions with little to no input from drivers.

When the car in front of you speeds up, yours would accelerate, and when the car in front of you screeches to a halt, your car would stop, too.

US scientists have been using what's known as control theory to develop algorithms that will enable this technology of the future.

"We are developing solutions that could enable the future of energy efficient mobility systems," said Dr Andreas Malikopoulos, of the University of Delaware.

"We hope that our technologies will help people reach their destinations more quickly and safely while conserving fuel at the same time."

Some day, cars might talk to each other to coordinate traffic patterns.

Malikopoulos and collaborators from Boston University recently developed a solution to control and minimise energy consumption in connected and automated vehicles crossing an urban intersection that lacked traffic signals.

Next, they used software to simulate their results and found that their framework allowed connected and automated vehicles to conserve momentum and fuel while also improving travel time.

Their simulations suggested that the connected vehicles used 19 to 22 per cent less fuel and got to their destinations 26 to 30 per cent faster than human-driven vehicles.

While New Zealand has been promoted internationally as a "test-bed" for the technologies, the Ministry of Transport and the NZ Transport Agency were still reviewing transport legislation to clarify the legality of testing of driverless cars here.

That would specifically consider the issues of liability associated with testing - but would not consider liability for general use.

Meanwhile, there had been some instances of the innovation already here.

Last year, Ohmio Automotion announced plans to start producing self-driving vehicles here after launching driverless buses in Christchurch.