What does fear sound like?

The brain of a dentalphobic patient reacts to the melody of a dentist’s instruments in a unique fashion, according to new research. Of course, you might reasonably expect to see more neurological activity as the patient becomes more alarmed at, say, a drill’s gnaw.

But no, researchers in Japan say the extremely anxious patient actually processes sounds such as suction, drilling and scraping with a different part of the brain altogether – the left caudate nucleus. The left caudate is believed to play a role in learning and remembering and is part of the basal ganglia, thought to control action selection (which means choosing what motor response to take in a given situation).

If this is right the opportunity won’t be lost on visionary dentists – it’s a novel chance to imprint a behavioural groove. It could benefit the patient for life. The possibilities are endless. Let’s say you have a very nervous woman in the chair. This is their first check-up in seven years and they have come in reluctantly after months of worsening pain in their upper jaw. You already suspect you’ll need to extract UR6 and UR7 but know it will probably end up being much worse.

Speaking slowly to her terrified eyes you explain the first step is a simple assessment, so on goes the suction – and twang goes her left caudate nucleus. From here it records whether you are gentle, if you work with fidelity and are, as she understands it, good for her… or not.

It’s a privileged moment because your classy performance will, if we believe Hiroyuki Karibe at the Nippon Dental University in Tokyo, teach her to remember that she trusts dentists, wherever she is, whenever she might hear that scraping sound again.