How to really scare your brain this Halloween

What are you afraid of? Me, I’m fairly OK with bugs and creepy crawlies but I can’t last five minutes into most horror films. We all have our own personal fears, most of us have some fears that are born of our society or culture but there are certain universal fears that are common to us all.

A good horror movie knows what these are and is well prepared to exploit them. Many of these fears are irrational, irrelevant or even throwbacks to our ancient ancestors, but tell that to our amygdalas.

The Brain on fear

The core regions of the brain that control fear are the amygdala, two small, almond shaped regions that sit behind the eyes, and above our ears. Don’t let their size fool you; they punch well above their weight. The amygdala may be ancient and crude in its methods of eliciting our fear responses, but it still cannot be overcome by the more rational, cognitive and evolved forebrain.

There is a good reason that the amygdala gets to override conscious thought; it needs to divert all the body’s energy towards surviving the sudden threat, preparing to run or to turn and fight.

Fight or flight – the body on fear

When fear activates the amygdala there are a number of physical responses triggered in the body; these include an increase in heart rate, rapid breathing and a diversion of some blood supply from the digestive system to the muscles so that the body is primed to fight, if required.

One interesting response to fear is the appearance of goose bumps on our bodies. This, in part, is due to the priming of our muscles in response to the fear trigger, but it is also a throwback to the time when we had a lot more hair on our bodies. To our ancient ancestors, puffing up body hair could be enough to deter a threatening animal and save our lives. Nowadays, this response does little good to our more modern, less hairy selves.

Our fears change as we grow older

We experience fear from a very young age. For babies, it is usually a basic fear response in reaction to a sudden loud noise or movement, such as a loss of support. This is often referred to as the Moro response and usually includes a rapid jerking movement of the limbs, and crying.

As we get older and our brains and cognition develop, so too do our fears. Babies may start to fear new faces, once they have developed the ability to recognise the familiar and the strange. As imagination develops then fears change appropriately, so fear of imaginary creatures can arise around the age of two or three.

With the passing of years our fears become more focused on potentially real threats and dangers, such as getting lost or hurt or the worries associated with stressful social or personal situations.

By the time we reach adulthood our fears tend to be more rational, such as health fears, the safety of loved ones and our own mortality.

The ingredients of a good scare

Why do we get so drawn in by a good horror movie? How does it scare us when we know it is not real? A good film writer and director know how to draw us in to the movie, so that we shut down the more rational part of our brain as we relax into the story. When the scare arrives (as we know it will) we react immediately on instinct; the scream or reaction comes before the rational part of the brain has time to engage.

There is even a new type of science for this, it is called Neurocinematics, and all good film makers are well tuned in to what this type of study reveals about how we react and interact, when watching a movie.

The after effect of fear

We all know what fear feels like and anyone who has sat through a good horror movie can certainly relate to the increased heart rate, elevated energy levels and shivers down the spine. However, sometimes we are left with more than just the memories when the movie is over. Studies have shown that horror movies can even leave us with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The fear junkie – why do we do it?

Whether it’s watching a horror movie or jumping out of a moving plane, some people go to great lengths to trigger these fear responses in the body. But why do they do it?

There can be two main reasons; firstly, the body’s physiological responses to stress are often the exact same as the trigger of excitement, it can just depend on how we interpret it. For some, that buzz created by stressing the body gives them an exciting rush that can become quite addictive.

Secondly, it may be the coming down off stress that is worth the stress itself. The heart rate slows, the body calms and we get a feeling of relief that, for some is worth the ride on that roller coaster of fear.

How about you? What scares you most? Are you a fear junkie or do you like to play it safe?

Let me know in the comments below.

Happy Halloween!


Science blogger and writer; Owner of Dr. How's Science Wows; Mother of three junior scientists who have taught me that to be a great scientist you need to look at life through the eyes of a child!

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