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Generative Dreading

LS's picture

How many times have you been in class or at a meeting when the moderator or professor sets a deadline for a presentation and everyone moans about how early that deadline is, yet on the day of the presentations there is a line to go first?  It seems as even though these individuals did not feel that they had enough time to finish the presentation, but everyone cannot wait to get it done and present at the first possible moment!  Why is it this way?  I always want to go first and not simply because I think I will get a better grade or be on the professors’ good graces, it is because I want to get it done and over with!  If presenting, or other things of this nature, is painful and traumatic to us physically and mentally, why do we continue to want to face these challenges head on instead of trying to avoid and run from them?  What is this supernatural force that causes us to have superhuman will power and attack these painful threats head on?  Dread.  The dictionary describes dread as a noun and a verb: (v) to fear greatly; be in extreme apprehension of, to be reluctant to do, meet, or experience, (n) terror or apprehension as to something in the future; great fear (1).


Before understanding dread it is essential to realize how dread is linked with pain, both physiological and psychological, and the neural constructs related to dread. There are adaptive reasons why humans expect and avoid pain: to motivate escape, to learn to recognize and prevent harm, to avoid harmful experiences (2).  Expectations of pain activate sites within the medial frontal lobe, insular cortex, and cerebellum.  Activation in these anticipatory regions increase over time, and are in close proximity to regions that are implicated in painful experiences, such as the anterior medial frontal cortex, the anterior insular and the posterior cerebellum.  The regions activated by pain and the regions that are activated when pain is expected are very near to each other and may play a role in learning to predict pain from local interactions (2).  This expectation of pain is what I will define as dread.  Pain not only arises from actual physiological and psychological threats, but from perceived placebo threat as well.  Placebo analgesia was found to decrease brain activity in the pain sensitive areas and during anticipation increase activation in the anticipatory painful brain regions (3). 


 Dread is a negative construct and in some models of decision making is the cost of waiting (4).  In an experiment run by Berns et al. subjects were had to make the choice between receive a shock immediately or later in the future, and then whether to receive a larger shock sooner and a smaller shock later.  Almost all of the individuals in the first experiment chose to receive the earlier shock, rather than wait for the second shock even though it would not decrease the lengths of the experiment.  In the second experiment Berns et al. found that the individuals could be classified into two types: extreme dreaders and moderate dreaders.  In this second experiment, the extreme dreaders would choose the shock that was sooner and more powerful rather than wait for the second less powerful shock which the moderate dreaders opted for.  In these experiments the areas that are activated with anticipatory pain are activated during this dread: the time between the expectation of the shock and the delivery of the shock.  These individuals were made so uncomfortable by the cost of waiting for the shock, in a dread state, that they choose the sooner shock and often the more powerful shock, just to be finished with the pain.


 There are many models that attempt to explain why individuals act this way, dread is something that we all experience at some point in our life, whether it is a shock, a presentation or a confrontation.  One model proposes that speeding up or delaying the time until the outcome could change the utility of the outcome.  For example, waiting longer to receive shock or do a presentation only makes it feel more horrible, even though there is no neural construct to make it worse.  A second model is the decision making model where the individual balances two considerations: the time waited and the outcome.  I am most interested in a third model the standard discount utility theory that addresses preferences for outcomes at different times.  This theory states that individuals will more be more careless about the outcomes that are more remote than those that are more imminent.  With this theory we would expect the individuals to want to delay undesirable experiences for as long as possible and expedite rewarding situations.  However, in the experiment done by Berns et al. and in our everyday experiences we do not always see this happening, as in the case with the presentation.  We often see individuals display the opposite, delaying gratification.  It is it like vegetables and dessert for most individuals; they will consume the vegetables first and delay gratification of the desert.  In most circumstances we see the opposite of the standard discount utility theory (4).


  My personal experience with one of my most dreaded tasks, which contradicts the standard discount utility theory, and supports Berns et al. is the CRASH B world indoor rowing champion ships, which is an indoor ergometer sprint race in which the individual is presented with a hammer upon winning (5).  Using an ergometer is considered by most individuals, including myself, a dreadful and undesirable experience however, one always feels so good after it, a desirable experiences.  It’s like hitting your self in the head with a hammer- it feels so good when you stop.  One must lessen the dread and face an undesirable experience to expedite and lengthen the desired experiences and outcomes.


As a college student I do see my self adapting this Berns et al. model of dread in my work and when I have to present, however I do not feel that this model is completely useful.  I do procrastinate and put off undesirable experiences such as writing a paper, this follows the standard discount utility theory.  While I think that the Berns et al. model is good in some experiences and environments I do not think that it can account for them all.  Evolutionarily, I think that the Berns et al model does work very well.  If an individuals can over come a dreadful situation as quickly as possible in order to move to a more desirable and pleasant state that one can spend less time experiencing the uncomfortable experience of dread.  Evolutionarily, I think that dread plays an incredibly important role in our lives.  We experience dread as a warning, in order to learn how to avoid and quickly exit painful situations.  Now, if I can just remember that dread is a generative feeling when comes to dreading writing a horrible paper

  WWW Sources  

1); Definition of dread

2) 04de98e809415340156c0cfe&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha; Dissociating Pain from Its Anticipation in the Human Brain, 

3) 96ee0672999c74396c339b49797f&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha; Placebo-Induced Changes in fMRI in the Anticipation and Experience of Pain, 

4);Neurobiological Substrates of Dread, 

5);C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints World Indoor Rowing Championship