The Neuroscience of Fear and Your Brain

Halloween night is here! Whether you’re planning on dressing up and taking your kids Trick or Treating, heading to a Halloween party or just shutting the lights off and watching a scary movie, Halloween night has something for everyone. The holiday also piques the interest of neurosurgeons and anyone interested in the brain’s response to an emotion closely tied to the holiday – fear. In today’s blog, we take a closer look at the neuroscience behind fear and explain why some people actually enjoy a good scare. BOO!

Your Brain’s Response To Fear

Fear is the perception of a mental threat, and this triggers what’s known as the “fight or flight” response in our brain. This is a primitive response that can be traced back to our ancestors and how they adapted to the world around them. When they encountered a potential threat, their fight or flight response was activated and they chose to either remove themselves from the situation or fight back against the threat.

This fight or flight response is still activated by our brains today, although it’s not something we deal with as regularly as our ancestors in response to a physical threat. More commonly, we deal with mental threats that trigger this response. Our brain is triggering a response due to an action or event that is affecting the status quo of our brain’s normal mental state.

The fight or flight response is engaged by your amygdala, the part of your brain that helps in how you handle emotions. The amygdala also helps your brain process fear, but it responds to mental and physical threats in the same way. You’d probably get sweaty hands if you noticed a group of men walking towards you in a dark alley, but the same may occur during a difficult job interview or when shooting the game winning free throw shots. That’s your fight or flight response kicking in to a physical or mental threat!

So what’s happening when your amygdala kicks in your fight or flight response? Due to the potential threat, your brain releases a chemical known as glutamate, which affects to other regions of your brain. The first area is the mid-brain, and chemical’s effect on this area can lead to an involuntary jump or a frozen moment of panic when the movie villain jumps out from his hiding place. The second area that is affected is the hypothalamus, which is an area of your brain that produces hormones. The hypothalamus triggers our nervous system into go mode – and either we fight or flee. Our heart rate increases and adrenaline and dopamine course throughout our body as we make the decision to run for our lives or fight with everything we’ve got.

Why People Like To Be Scared

Nobody likes to be put in a life threatening situation, but some people do like the rush they get when they can get their brains to activate the release of adrenaline and dopamine in certain situations. You’ll get that same rush from bungee jumping, ATV-ing, walking through a haunted house or watching a scary movie on TV.

However, not everyone’s brain’s process dopamine (the brain’s reward chemical) in the same manner, otherwise everyone would love the rush of a scary movie. Research has shown that some people’s brains release more dopamine than others, and they get more of a rush during particularly risky or scary situations.

So if you get scared tonight, know that your brain is working overtime to help keep you alive! Happy Halloween!

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