Nine easy steps to overcoming eight-legged fears

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Arachnophobia, the extreme fear of spiders, is among the most common phobias in the world. Fictional terrors such as Shelob in “The Lord of the Rings” and Aragog in the Harry Potter novels were created to play on this fear.

Real-life spiders — usually smaller and less threatening than fictional versions — are largely beneficial additions to gardens and households. Can arachnophobes learn to peacefully coexist with these eight-legged objects of fear? It may only take a CMOS imager, some augmented reality software, and a few hours spent squirming and screaming.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland have developed a science-based app called Phobys that uses augmented reality to provide exposure therapy, helping arachnophobes to overcome their fears, without putting any real spiders at risk. The app uses a smartphone’s embedded CMOS camera to capture a real-world image, onto which the app then projects a lifelike 3D model of a spider.

“It’s easier for people with a fear of spiders to face a virtual spider than a real one,” said Anja Zimmer, lead author of the study.

Zimmer and her colleagues analyzed the effectiveness of Phobys in a clinical trial involving 66 uncomfortable subjects. Over the course of two weeks, participants in the experimental group were exposed to a realistic 3D spider model for six half-hour training units, while the control group was offered no intervention or training to overcome their fear. Before and after treatment, the subjects approached a real, live spider in a transparent box as closely as their fear allowed. The participants who trained using Phobys were able, after training, to approach the spider with significantly less fear and disgust than the control group.

The app employs gaming elements such as positive feedback, animation, and sound effects to motivate users to complete nine levels, allowing them to get progressively closer to — and even interact with — their virtual spider. Each level ends with the user assessing his or her own fear and disgust, after which the app decides whether the level should be repeated or the user is ready to move on to the next one.

The Phobys app represents an important advancement toward combatting humans’ often irrational fear of spiders. Meanwhile, potential solutions to spiders’ rational fear of humans remains under-researched.

Published: December 2021
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