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 faced 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 “trick or treat,” or going to a “scary movie?” Neuroscientists have discovered that your brain reacts differently to a horror created for entertainment than to the “real thing” as induced in the laboratory. The conventions of Halloween and the horror movie seem to tell the brain that”this isn’t real.”
We may describe the experience as scary, but our brain activity actually matching that shown during feelings of exhilaration, rather than fear. This pattern of may also explain why horror movies 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, embrace the fun side of fear. Grab a bowl of popcorn, a few close friends and a stack of classic scary movies. No external chemical stimulation required.