Fear is generally thought of as a negative emotion. Google it and you will find thousands of articles, books and blog posts about how to face your fear and overcome it so you can be more successful, happy or brilliant. Yet fear serves a very useful purpose in our growth as a species. Fear is one of the key behaviors that keeps us alive and has done so since the time of our genetic ancestors. I’ve previously written about some fears that seem to be imprinted on us in our DNA, such as the fear of snakes. If you study the latest results of the Chapman University Survey of Fears, you’ll see that topping the list are man-made disasters, technology, government, environment, personal future, natural disaster and crime. If you review the list of the top-grossing movies of all time, you’ll see a similar list. Somewhere along the line, we’ve learned to turn our greatest fears into entertainment. Is there some mechanism in the brain that encourages us to turn our fear of manmade and natural disasters into blockbuster films?
A recent study of the fear response looked at how the brain learns, encodes and retrieves memories of fear-inducing events, causing us to react with fear when faces with a similar situation in the future. These researchers identified a particular type of neuron in the amygdala, an ancient part of the brain connected with the experience and expression of emotions, with the “fear memory” process. But the amygdala is just where the fear response is processed and stored. In a different study, a woman with a non-functioning amygdala still experienced intense fear when she was put in a situation in which she felt that she was suffocating. This study suggests that our brain is able to recognize physical signals from the body and produce a fear response when our bodily functions are threatened or compromised.
Fear normally induces the “fight or flight” response. Our brains make a split-second decision to face the danger head on or run – as fast as our legs can carry us. This response also brings about several physical changes in our body, such as quickened heart rate, heightened alertness and the priming of our muscles for action. Anyone who has been in danger – real or perceived – can tell you that fear is not a pleasant sensation.
So why do so many of us love a “scary movie?” Neuroscientists have discovered that your brain reacts differently to a horror movie than to the “real thing” as induced in the laboratory. The conventions of the horror movie seem to tell the brain that this isn’t real. We may describe the movie as scary, but our brain activity was actually much more similar to exhilaration than fear. This pattern of “your brain on horror movies” may also explain why they are so addictive to so many of us – because they actually are addictive. The combined feelings of anxiety, suspense and excitement are accompanied by neural transmitters that generate a natural “high” in the brain, making us want more and more of the same mix of chemicals to give us that rush. So this Halloween, grab a bowl of popcorn, a few close friends and a stack of classic scary movies. No external chemical stimulation required.