Fear is your brain reacting to the expectation or anticipation of possible harm. That doesn’t sound like much fun. So, why do so many of us seek out heart-pounding, can’t-catch-your-breath, pee-in-your-pants scares? Well, there are a lot of reasons. Let’s start by understanding how the brain actually processes fear, and how the body responds.
Our brains are wired to be on the lookout for threats in the environment. It’s so important, multiple pathways carry this information straight from your senses to your brain. A signal first hits your thalamus and then zooms to your amygdala, which puts you on high alert.
The fear signal then zips to an ancient part of your brain called the periaqueductal gray, responsible for the fight-or-flight response, and speeds on to the hypothalamus, which controls the classic bodily fear responses: thumping heart, skyrocketing blood pressure, and rapid breathing. Then your adrenal glands start pumping out adrenaline. Glucose and cortisol are released into your system, keeping you ready for action.
The chemicals released during a fight-or-flight moment can work like glue to build strong memories, sometimes called flashbulb memories, which is why very vivid, scary memories seem to be burned into your brain.
Cool! But how does this actually make us feel?
Fear immediately activates your body’s arousal system, as described above, which triggers a cascade of feel-good neurotransmitters and hormones, like endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline that give you an incredible rush. Seconds later, you recognize that you’re safe, and your mind interprets the arousal as positive, leaving you with a surge that feels pretty great. It’s a safe way to experience exhilarating feelings.
Not everyone enjoys being afraid, however, and most of us don’t want to experience a truly life-threatening situation. But there are plenty of us who really enjoy a good scare. Research suggests that this may be because of key differences in how the brains of thrill-seekers and thrill-avoiders handle dopamine, the brain chemical of pleasure and reward.
Some people seek thrills because their brains have a limited ability to process dopamine, causing them to seek it out in higher doses.
There may be genetic differences in our reaction to fear as well. People with two copies of the COMT gene (linked to anxiety) are more easily disturbed by frightening images.
People earn bragging rights by jumping out of airplanes, climbing mountains, and riding roller coasters with names like “The Intimidator.” There are even companies that let you plan and pay for your own kidnapping. (No, thank you!)
Besides the chemical high accompanying thrills, forging through a scary experience makes us feel resourceful, successful, and confident and boosts our self-esteem. There’s great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment in being able to say that you conquered something threatening — even if it’s nothing more than the relief of having made it through.
Fear also provides relief from your real-life anxieties. If you’re focusing on the zombie lurking around the corner, you can’t stress over that deadline at work. Fear forces you into the present moment, and everything else falls away.
To really enjoy a scary situation, your brain has to know that you are ultimately safe.
It’s all about triggering your fight-or-flight response and getting the chemical rush, but in a completely safe space. Haunted houses have gotten really good at this. Many deliver a startle scare by triggering one of your senses with different sounds, air blasts, and even smells that sets off your fear response, but your brain soon realizes these aren’t real threats, and you immediately start laughing and smiling.