Understanding The Science Of Fear

When you break it down, fear is a neurological response to stimuli. Our brains respond to a threat and create a physical response in return — sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, that feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut — even if the type of threat differs. Defining fear beyond the physiological is often more difficult.

Fear is as basic as breathing. Scientists know where it comes from — the amygdala, a dual mass under the temporal lobe that’s about the size of an almond — but still aren’t sure how exactly to measure it. Not everyone enjoys having the pants scared off them, but for those who do, what makes us afraid can vary a lot. We may all share a fear of dying, but don’t necessarily have the same immediate response to spiders, or fire, or the word “moist.” That’s why scientists have trouble pinning down the specifics of how it all works.

A general fear of snakes can seem reasonable, whereas a severe phobia of dryer lint would seem irrational. Both could cause similar response in the fear center of someone’s brain, and trigger the impulse to run away. Interestingly enough, a Swedish psychologist by the name of Arne Öhman found that flashing images of spiders or snakes rapidly at people will create a brief fight-or-flight response in the amygdala. When the photos were slowed down, and someone with arachnophobia could actually comprehend what they were looking at, the response was stronger and more lasting. It appears our brains are primed to respond to any potentially dangerous stimuli very quickly, even if we don’t have a specific fear of the problem presented.

If what scares you is plunging to your death from a considerable height, you may not love bungee jumping. But some people seek out the thing they hate, especially around Halloween. For instance, I’m terrified of elevators but loves riding roller coasters. Why? Our amygdala is very closely tied in with our hypothalamus, which controls our hormones — a key hormone being adrenaline. Whether through a positive or negative experience, the release of hormones like endorphins, dopamine, and oxcytocin is similar during an emotional event.

We get addicted to that “rush,” because it creates a sort of false confidence. You know zombies aren’t real, but making it through a haunted house tour can give you a little ego boost. It’s why people make a hobby of jumping out of airplanes. We want to experience that sort of fear again, or else we wouldn’t watch horror films or visit amusement parks.

As adults, we have the ability to “rate” the threat we’re presented with facts we’ve gathered through experience. We know scary movies aren’t actually going to kill us. Children don’t necessarily have that knowledge, and aren’t able to evaluate a situation and respond accordingly. It’s the lack of security that affects how we respond to fear. I know a roller coaster is made to simulate plunging over an abyss, but we’re on a track; it’s been engineered for safety; there’s a seat belt or a lap bar holding me in to my seat.

At the same time, when you know that elevators can be just as safe as roller coasters and you’re still afraid of one more than the other, you are falsely placing too much importance on the threat of disaster. Our ability to appraise fear is overridden and becomes irrational. I’ve plummeted to my death in an elevator far too many times in my dreams to ever fully trust them. (Perhaps the only cure for this is to send me Keanu Reeves, who has a proven track record of rescuing people in elevators.)

Deep down, when touring a  haunted house, you know that person jumping out at you in the dark is someone who’s dressed up to scare you — so it’s fun to get scared. Walking down a darkened alley at night does not hold the same sort of security. It’s the underlying knowledge of a situation that will start the fight-or-flight response. So we enjoy these little (or sometimes in the case of extreme sports like bungee jumping, big) scares as a deviation from our normal day, because it still mostly feels like a controlled outcome.

Another benefit of scaring yourself is that we tend to do these thrill-seeking things as group activities. When you have a generally good experience with someone under a stressful situation — like being scared — the dopamine released can heighten the emotional bond you have with that person. There are more people laughing as they exit a haunted house than crying. So, contrary to what we learned in Speed, relationships based on intense experiences maybe actually do work.