It is the time of year that we celebrate and seek fear more than ever, with Halloween around the corner. Many people list Halloween as their favorite holiday and spend the month of October decorating homes with festive decor and bunkering down to watch horror flics. Research into the neurophysiology of fear displays why some people love horror films:
- Novel activity: The brain is designed to seek new stimuli to strengthen neural pathways and connections. This new activity could come in the form of learning a new language, sport, or instrument. The fear response elicited from horror movies is a break from daily life’s mundane activity and, therefore, a novel stimulus.
- The excitation transfer process: The excitatory stimulus of fear from a horror flick could elicit an amplified emotional response to another stimulus. This phenomenon would explain the preference for watching a scary movie for date night.
- About 10% of the population is wired for intense physiological arousal from fear. As much as 20% of the population has been exposed to the parasite Toxoplasma gondii which alters brain chemistry to seek dangerous and risky behavior.
Fear is an emotional response that is experienced in the brain and alters physiology. Stimuli, which elicit a fear response, act upon the brain’s limbic system and, more specifically, the amygdala. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure in the brain that is implicated in recognizing, express, and experience fear. When the amygdala realizes fear, information is relayed through the limbic system’s networks to raise the heart rate, increase breathing, narrow vision, and shutdown conscious thinking.
This physiological response primarily served us to run from a real threat but was meant to be short-lived. The problem is now, that humans are always in fear of financial loss, health problems, political corruption, and lack of companionship. These messages of fear are being portrayed through media outlets, which drive fear deeper. These messages then further inhibit the brain’s area in charge of executive function, judgment, and conscious thinking, making the majority of humans easier to control through statements such as “the new normal” and “for the greater good.”
Research from the Journal of Neuroscience published in 2014 even shows that the amygdala is highly active in the presence of unseen faces, like when at a costume party during Halloween or daily life in 2020 when everyone is wearing a mask. Humans have an innate ability to recognize individuals displaying fear through facial expressions and retreat from that individual. Now in 2020, we have had the intrinsic characteristic of the human experience deterred. This chronic state of fear further changes the brain’s neurophysiology to a condition that is not conducive to health.
Fear is part of the human experience, so enjoy it while watching your favorite horror film during this season. When Halloween is over, it is time to break away from fear and display our full health potential. Give yourself a break from the constant hostile news media, practice the five essentials, and live fearlessly.
- Adolphs, Ralph. “The biology of fear.” Current biology : CB vol. 23,2 (2013): R79-93. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2012.11.055
Jonathan B. Freeman, Ryan M. Stolier, Zachary A. Ingbretsen, Eric A. Hehman. “Amygdala Responsivity to High-Level Social Information from Unseen Faces” Journal of Neuroscience 6 August 2014, 34 (32) 10573-10581; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5063-13.2014