October E-News: The Science of Fear


As the leaves begin to fall & the temperatures begin to drop, creatures of the night will begin to emerge as we near one of the most anticipated holidays of the year, Halloween! Why do so many people like horror movies? Or rollercoaster’s? Or haunted houses? Or a good ghost story? Fear is typically deemed a negative emotion, yet we go looking for it — particularly this time of year — in bite-sized bursts. We pay for it; we line up for it. Our heart races, our palms sweat, we scream in surprise and cringe in revulsion. And we say, let’s do it again!

Fear is the result of our brain’s evolution, the mechanism that emerged to protect our ancestors from leaping off cliffs or playing with pythons. We are here because of fear. It’s our species’ safety blanket from life’s sharp corners. It’s not a pleasant experience, really, even though it keeps us breathing. And yet, in the context of a dark movie theater or wandering the halls of an abandoned mansion, fear can be pretty fun. Haunted houses & scary movies allow us to experience the tonic of a good fright but what is fear, exactly? We wanted to go beyond the ghosts & ghouls this Halloween & see how much science lies  behind the scream.

For some, the feeling of fright brings along an exhilarating rush when we’re in a threatening situation. Those who enjoy horror movies, roller coasters, and extreme sports often seek that rush without the physical harm that can accompany spontaneous fear. Research suggests the enjoyment these people find is directly related to their dopamine production & receptors. The more dopamine produced in a scary situation means the more that person will enjoy being scared. Dopamine is basically like a natural drug high, it makes us feel euphoric and happy, so it can be quite a rush. But for some, feeling scared is a traumatic experience and can be completely debilitating.

For humans, fear is a full body experience. In order to stay safe, our entire system has to react quickly to process & respond to the information it is receiving. Once the brain jump starts the fear response, it doesn’t take long for the physiological changes to affect our entire body. First, the sensory organs – our eyes, ears, tongue nose and skin – pick up cues from our surroundings and feed them to our brain. Our brain’s threat center, is an almond-shaped structure called the amygdala. The amygdala acts as a ‘watch tower’ of sorts for the brain by processing all of initial emotional responses from external stimuli. Science suggests that without the amygdala, we would lack the capacity to feel fear all together.

If the amygdala identifies a threat, it sounds the alarm, immediately kicking the fight or fight response into gear. Before we know it, our heart’s beating like crazy, we’re taking quick, shallow breaths and sweating in case we have to defend ourselves or make a quick get away.

These changes are controlled by a part of the peripheral nervous system called the autonomic nervous system which regulates automatic changes to the body’s vital functions. While the brains does the brunt of the processing and coordination work, the entire body quickly gets involved to create the fear response. That’s because the fear response is biologically first, and the psychological second. Anytime we feel that a familiar jolt of fear, our brains are going through the same process. When we perceive something as a threat, the amygdala triggers a rush of chemicals and hormones that result in all the various physical responses to fear your heart starts pounding, and a chill shudders its way down your spine while all those little hairs on the back of your neck are standing right up. In the meantime, though, the information your senses pick up (the distant footsteps or animal behind you) get passed along to the pre-frontal cortex which takes a deep breath and locally assesses the risk factor.

When you see something scary your body’s stress response is going to be the same. Our brain detects a change of environment and releases dopamine to make us more alert. Think of the last time you were scared, do you remember the hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach and the sudden snap to attention of all your senses? No matter what’s causing it, to our brain, all fear feels the same. The reasoning behind this is because the body’s response to fear is biological first, and psychological second. Anytime we feel that familiar jolt of fear, our brains are going through the same process.

Our brains are unable to distinguish a difference between truly frightening experiences and those that people have purposefully designed to make us feel fearful. This opens the door for scary activities, such as horror movies, haunted houses and roller coasters, which allow us to experience fear without (hopefully) ever risking true physical danger. For every person who seeks fear in the real or personal sense, millions seek it vicariously, especially for the Halloween holiday. In darkened hallways of haunted houses people identify themselves with fictitious storylines or characters that have experienced fear, and therefore, put themselves in the same frightful situations & experience the fearful sensations for themselves – the quickened pulse, the alternately dry and damp palm, etc., but without paying the price of real danger.

Whether a rabid dog jumps at you in real life or a rabid dog jumps at you on a movie screen, your brain’s initial response is the same. Even if you’re in a safe context, the potentially harmful stimulus sends your amygdala buzzing, releasing energizing hormones in the brain and body. But as this happens, your prefrontal cortex interprets the information, reminding you that it’s only a movie and you’re not in real danger. The threat is artificial, but you still trick your body into having real physiological reactions. The fun fear we feel watching a scary movie stems from a sort of tango between the primitive part of our brain (amygdala) and the logical part (prefrontal cortex). And as they dance, your body has a party.

So, what is it about our nature that makes us enjoy Halloween? horror movies? bungee jumping? These things scare us, and we like it – why? Well, as it turns out, the parts of our brain that process fear overlap quite a bit with those that process pleasure. We are wired to experience a rush of chemicals when something startles us, and those chemicals, can be remarkably similar to the one we get when we’re enjoying something. (Like ice cream)! So far, neuroscientists have had a hard time coming up with a consistent answer for why our brains have evolved that way. For now, though, we can just be glad they did – otherwise, what fun would Halloween be?

 Learn More about the Science of Fear with these great resources:

GooseBumps: The Science of Fear Teacher Resources

Fear on Exhibit

NBC Learn: The Chemistry of Fear

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