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Oct 25, 2007

Darkness-enhanced startle responses in ecologically valid environments

Darkness-enhanced startle responses in ecologically valid environments: A virtual tunnel driving experiment.

Biol Psychol. 2007 Sep 14;

Authors: Mühlberger A, Wieser MJ, Pauli P

Using the startle reflex methodology, researchers have shown that darkness, a phylogenetically relevant aversive context for humans, elicits fear responses. The present study replicated these findings in an ecologically valid situation, a virtual tunnel drive. Furthermore, the study focused on the question whether the darkness-enhanced startle response is modulated by an additional task involvement of the participants. Startle responses were assessed during virtual tunnel drives with darker and brighter sections. Participants once actively drove the virtual car and once passively sat in the car as a passenger. We found more negative feelings during darker parts of the virtual tunnel and during active driving. However, facilitated startle reactions in darkness were restricted to passive drives. Furthermore, correlation analyses revealed that darkness-enhanced startle modulation was more pronounced in participants with lower state anxiety. These results extend earlier findings in an experimental paradigm using ecologically valid virtual environments. Further research should use virtual reality paradigms to address context-dependent research questions.

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