Does your brain like fear?

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

By the pricking of my thumbs

Something wicked this way comes.

~William Shakespeare



Fall is in full swing and that weirdest of all holidays -Halloween- is here. OK, I get the fun of costumes and candy, but what is so great about a corn maze full of ghouls or a haunted house with screaming witches? And why would you willingly watch a movie full of murder and mayhem that makes you afraid to ever go out in the dark again? Well, it seems some people actually enjoy being frightened, and there is neuroscience behind this.

Fear is the mental perception of a potential threat. Our brains respond the same way in a situation where there is an actual physical threat like an angry dog lunging at you, or a situation that just feels threatening - like watching a scary movie. When we face a threat, the first and most rapid response happens in the limbic system which handles emotions, and specifically in the amygdala. When it is triggered, the brain releases a chemical known as glutamate which affects the mid-brain and can lead to an involuntary body jump or a frozen moment of panic. Along with that the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that produces hormones, prompts release of adrenaline and dopamine which create that sensation of a rush we get in dangerous situations. This is meant to ready us to act by fighting or fleeing, but dopamine is also the brain’s reward chemical associated with states of happiness and excitement, and produces a pleasurable sensation. Studies show that people who experience more pleasure from spooky things have higher levels of dopamine release and response in their brains when exposed to those types of stimuli.


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Whether you scream in terror and hysterically run to escape those approaching zombies, find them cheesy and boring (um, they walk at a snail’s pace!), or enjoy the thrill of the moment, reflects complex brain processing involving prior experiences, memory and learning. It depends in large part on the balance of your amygdala activity and the influence of the ‘thinking’ prefrontal cortex which provides context and helps interpret whether a perceived threat is real. If the experience is seen as too real, an extreme fear response may overcome a sense of control over the situation and leave one traumatized. If on the other hand, the experience is unconvincing to the prefrontal cortex, you may not be able to enjoy scary experiences at all. The most enjoyable scare occurs when the experience is triggering enough but we recognize it is safe in the current context (like a movie theater) and we can control our response to relabel the experience as exciting or fun. Then, fear can serve as a positive distraction by focusing your attention on the present experience and away from other worries that may preoccupy you otherwise.

So, if it works for you, go ahead to the haunted houses and scary movies and wait for the creepy atmospheric music to set your brain up for the nightmare that is to follow. BOO!

Have a good Halloween fright!



Post by: Nadia Fike

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