In a clinical psychology lab in Amsterdam, Dr. Merel Kindt, a Dutch neuroscientist and University of Amsterdam professor, coaxes a young man into a nondescript room. In its center, raised on a tall white platform, lies a terrarium holding the man’s greatest fear: a tarantula. A chic woman with piercing blues eyes and moppy blonde hair, Dr. Kindt guides the man by the hand, coaching him to approach the tank as he wails and begs to stop. For phobic patients like him, just looking at a spider is a form of torture.
A few minutes later, Dr. Kindt helps the man regain composure in a room nearby. Still whimpering, he gulps down a small white pill, a common beta-blocker called propranolol. When he returns the next day, the man enters the tarantula room effortlessly. He gazes at the spider with a curious smile. “I can’t describe what I’m feeling,” he says, leaning over to gently stroke its hairy leg. “It’s just alien.”
This startling scene is just one of the many patient breakthroughs depicted in the new docuseries A Cure for Fear, streaming now on Topic, which takes a deep dive into Dr. Kindt’s pioneering fear treatment. Her procedure, so smoothly effective as to seem like magic, is based on years of scientific investigations into emotional memories—which, for decades, neuroscientists have accepted as permanent and unyielding. But once new research emerged calling the rigidity of memory into question, Dr. Kindt jumped at the chance to put the theory to work.
Before reading the study, Dr. Kindt was trained in behavioral therapy. But though this type of treatment, which hinges on repeated exposure to a fear object, is effective, “the relapse rates are relatively high—up to 50, 60 percent, and we often do not really understand the mechanisms of change,” Dr. Kindt tells The Daily Beast. Upon reading the memory study, she thought: “Wow, if that’s possible in humans, and if that’s going to work in people suffering from disorders of emotional memory like anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, this would really have such a great impact on the field.”
From there, Dr. Kindt began initial experimentation, ultimately developing a two-part treatment procedure: trigger the emotional memory through exposure, and then, while the memory is at its most vulnerable, neutralize the accompanying fear with the help of a beta-blocker. Unlike behavioral therapy, which introduces a series of safe memories to “drown out” the original traumatic memory, Dr. Kindt’s procedure abolishes the fear completely. After treatment, whenever the subject (like the arachnophobe) is exposed to the fear object (a spider), he or she no longer retrieves a fear memory, but a neutralized one. Within an hour, even the most traumatized patient is totally cured.
By now, Dr. Kindt has treated hundreds of patients, most of whom suffer from specific phobias—snakes, needles, mice, or even more peculiar ones like cats or butterflies—as well as subjects battling post-traumatic stress. Because the process is so quick, she is able to see several patients per week while pursuing further research in the field.
The docuseries, directed by Lana Wilson and spanning four 15-minute episodes, is a fascinating treat, allowing us a window into the treatment processes for multiple phobic patients as well as one veteran suffering from PTSD. For almost all of them, the treatment proves immediately successful. But Wilson does include one episode, titled “You Did Your Very Best,” dedicated to failed attempts, illustrating how, when a patient is more reluctant to lean into their fear, their protective impulses prevent the cure from taking hold. “It’s almost as if you believe more in the effects if it not always works,” Dr. Kindt reflects to a research assistant after a disappointing day. “You learn very often more from a failed experiment than from a successful experiment. It’s a hard way to learn.”
Post-traumatic stress has been an especially difficult disorder for Dr. Kindt to treat, given the unique challenge of recreating past trauma. It’s easy to guide an arachnophobe near a tarantula. But how do you convincingly recreate the Afghanistan war? The episode “Nighttime in Kabul” demonstrates how her team unlocked a method combining verbal storytelling and virtual reality. “We still do not really understand how we can explain the intrusive memories, the vividness of the memories,” Dr. Kindt says of PTSD. “And much more goes on like depression, or feelings of guilt and shame, and problems with trusting other people or with attachment. It can be quite a complex disorder.”
There are also some that have ethical issues with the treatment, most likely based around the bizarre, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-esque question of whether troublesome memories should be erased in the first place. But, as Dr. Kindt explains, the treatment isn’t deleting the memory completely; it’s simply nullifying the fear element. Still, that doesn’t mean Dr. Kindt will allow just anyone in. When an ice skater wrote to her requesting help conquering a fear of performing a forward crossover, the doctor turned her away. “It’s not interfering with your daily life,” Dr. Kindt recalls telling her. “That was for us a sort of critical point.”
Moving forward, Dr. Kindt’s research (last year she was awarded more than two million Euros in grant money) will hone in on the treatment’s timing: how long a patient should be exposed before taking the pill. As of now, Dr. Kindt relies on experience and intuition. If her team can locate specific markers for when the fear memory is triggered and reconsolidated, she will be able to prescribe specific exposure time spans for each individual case. A development like that would not only raise the success rate in her own clinic, but would also enable her extend the treatment to other labs around the world.
Even with this goal in mind, Dr. Kindt acknowledges that we’re just in the beginning stages of understanding how emotional memory operates. Any next steps, she says, must include a combination of lab research, experimentation, and human therapy. “It’s so difficult to implement this treatment in other practices,” she says. “My opinion is that we should better understand the underlying principles which are really difficult, and take time. We need to be patient.”