This Neurobiologist Swims With Great White Sharks to Study Fear

Neurobiologist Dr. Andrew Huberman takes his study of fear and mental health to the next level — by diving with great white sharks.

Dr. Andrew Huberman, associate professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Stanford University, is on a mission to improve the way we diagnose, measure, and treat mental diseases.

“The Huberman Lab is a wide-range kingdom of neuroscience tools and techniques,” says Dr. Huberman, who oversees research on brain circuits that place emotional value on visual perceptions, as well as strategies for halting and reversing vision loss.

One of those tools that Dr. Huberman and his research team are investigating is virtual reality. Dr. Huberman brings realistic, vibrant experiences into the lab in order to measure the physical reactions our body exhibits while imagining ourselves in those scenarios. And in the case of measuring fear of great white sharks, Dr. Huberman and his team went to the waters off the coast of Guadalupe Island, Mexico, and outside of the protective shark cages, to capture the best fear-inducing experience possible.

“I was measuring people's stress levels and giving people tools to control their stress levels. The reason for this is to be able to compare those tools that we use in the field with the tools that we're using in the laboratory.”

Though diving and swimming with great white sharks is exhilarating and terrifying, Dr. Huberman believes it is all worth it for the goal of his studies.

“We want to change the way that mental disease and fear-related mental diseases like chronic anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as depression and other anxiety-related disorders, are diagnosed by incorporating objective, measurable things like heart rate, like breathing, like pupil size in addition to what people say,” says Dr. Huberman.

“I feel it's my obligation as a scientist and as a human being really, to develop new tools for the treatment of these incredibly debilitating disorders.”