fight or flight
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Science Explains: why we love to get scared

It’s that time of year again: the annual scare season of Halloween has once again reared its spooky head upon the students of Warwick. Most of us will be turning our attention to all things spooky: carving pumpkins, rushing out to buy last-minute costumes (for the Warwick Halloween Ball/POP!), binge-watching horror films, or perhaps visiting a haunted house attraction or two. Regardless of whether we embrace fear or detest it, it’s hard to ignore the fact that we as a species revere fear. But why is this the case?

Fear is an innate fundamental reaction that has a very simple purpose: to protect us against perceived harmful stimuli in order to promote survival. When we are scared, our bodies undergo many physiological changes, the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response. This reaction occurs as a result of the rapid release of many different stress hormones (including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol) and the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. These act on different targets resulting in bodily changes that enable us to react quickly and effectively to the perceived danger. The pupils dilate, heart rate increases, breathing accelerates, blood flow to muscles increases, fat and glycogen energy stores are liberated and the gastrointestinal system slows down. These all serve to give the body increased strength and speed in anticipation of fighting or fleeing from the dangerous situation.

When we are scared, our bodies undergo many physiological changes, the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response

The fear response begins in the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain. The amygdala is responsible for processing emotions; it becomes activated whenever we see any human face bearing an emotion. When it comes to anger and fear, however, this response is much more distinct. A threatening stimulus, such as the sight of a predator, generates a fear response within the amygdala, which in turn activates other regions of the brain and produces the ‘fight or flight’ response previously described.

So, how are we able to distinguish between genuine threats to our survival and those that aren’t real if the innate fear response is exactly the same? That’s the job of the pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus; these regions of the brain are responsible for interpreting the perceived danger and processing important contextual information in order to determine whether or not the fear is real. When a potential threat is determined to be harmless in the context of the situation, they are able to modulate the more primitive fear response by activating inhibitory pathways; the emotional regions of the brain are thus reassured that all is in fact well.

The amygdala is responsible for processing emotions; it becomes activated whenever we see any human face bearing an emotion

With films last year such as It and Get Out drawing audiences to the cinema in droves, it’s no surprise that 2017 was the biggest box office year for horror yet. It’s acutely apparent that we as humans are thrill seekers and enjoy being scared under the right circumstances. But why? Put simply, your brain knows that you are safe. When you step foot into a cinema or strap on the harness for a rollercoaster, your brain is aware that no matter what may threaten your life, during that time there is no genuine threat. When in a controlled environment, you will still experience fear, however, the hormones that are released in this situation are different and make you feel good. Dopamine, for example, is released when we are afraid; this hormone creates a high state of arousal, similar to what we experience when we are excited. This is why we often laugh after experiencing a big scare.

Whilst fear is innate and for some a highly unpleasant experience, it is vital to our survival. However, under the right circumstances, our bodies are able to hijack the ‘fight or flight’ response and use it for our own enjoyment. Being able to relabel a scary experience after overcoming the initial ‘rush’ allows us to feel reassured of our safety and often gives us a great deal of satisfaction.

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