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Scared straight at "The Science of Fear"

The new exhibition at Fort Lauderdale’s Museum of Discovery and Science wants to scare you stupid. But there’s a good reason: to make you smarter.

The museum’s “Goose Bumps! The Science of Fear,” on tour from the California Science Center, aims to demystify why we recoil at electrical shocks, leap at loud noises and cringe at the touch of a slithering snake, all of which trigger a fear response. And yes, goose bumps are also explained: those arm hairs that stand on end are throwbacks to our hairier, primal ancestors, who once puffed out their chests to ward off predators.

The show’s interactive elements — a fear-challenge course, a make-your-own-scary-movie-soundtrack tool — carry a broader goal of helping children and adults understand the physiological and psychological science behind the brain’s “freak-out moment,” says Joe Cytacki, the museum’s vice president of exhibitions.

“Fear is a self-defense mechanism and our fight-or-flight response, and scientifically it shows why we’re not so different to animals in terms of fear mechanisms. Without fear, we wouldn’t be alive,” Cytacki says. “Fear is fun, in the way that horror films make it entertaining to be scared. And this exhibit is about being scared in a safe way.”

The four-room challenge course measures visitors’ responses to four common fears, including the fear of animals, in which participants shove their hands inside a black box connected by pipes to enclosed terrariums filled with live tarantulas, scorpions and snakes. In the Fear of Electric Shock room, a plastic finger cuff mildly zaps anyone plugging a finger inside. In Fear of Loud Noises, a machine records the second you flinch at an explosive sound. And in Fear of Falling, visitors are strapped to a table, which collapses backward at random moments. People are innately afraid of loud noises and falling, but electrical shocks and animals are learned fears, says David Bibas, curator for technology programs at Los Angeles’ California Science Center.

“We wanted people to experience fear, the fear over a lifetime and the kinds of fears that we outgrow,” says Bibas, whose museum launched the exhibit in 2007 with research drawn from scientists at the California Institute of Technology and the University of Southern California.

In the Freeze Game, the outlines of visitors are projected against a screen, and they must collect oranges falling from a tree while outwitting a virtual leopard. The exhibit’s less-interactive — but no less gruesome — presentations include a display of real brains, ranging in scale from human to the chickpea-size mouse brain, which have been preserved through a process called plastination.

There is also Fear Theater, a Fear Lab and a series of posters illustrating human phobias, from the rational (fear of clowns and needles) to the silly (fear of knees and gold).

“This will help anybody, even adults, be more aware of their own involuntary fears and identify their own phobias,” Cytacki says.

Goose Bumps! The Science of Fear

When: 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 31, until Sept. 2

Where: Museum of Discovery and Science, 401 SW Second St., Fort Lauderdale

Cost: $12-$14

Contact: 954-467-6637 or or Twitter @philvalys

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