Why We Get Scared and Like It
Why do many of us get scared by the dopiest thing? It doesn’t matter how well you know your environment, on spooky night with the lights out that jacket tossed over the chair becomes a boogeyman. Blink and it’ll be standing by the bed…
We get scared because we’re human. Many of us, myself included, won’t immediately consider logical explanations when these things occur. Walking down a dark road at night for instance. Any unexpected and unfamiliar sound from the woods beside us, or the darkness behind us, makes us jump. We get goosey and run, or at least pick up the pace and get the hell out of there. So what’s going on?
Allow me to introduce the friendly autonomous sentinels in our brains called the amygdala. These amazing things cue in on stimuli in our environment way before the rest of our noggin is even remotely aware of it. They are specially tweaked through evolution to recognize facial characteristic, pick up on sounds and other things, even how close people are standing to us before we consciously think about it. They are the early warning system in the brain that helps us avoid danger. In fact, the heck with “thank god!” We can thank the amygdala that we’re even still here on this planet. If we didn’t have this innate ability to identify threats the human race would have been long gone by now.
When something potentially harmful or threatening is picked up by the amygdala it warns us by making us feel nervous or scared, causing the hair to stand up on the back of our neck, giving us goosebumps, raising our heart rate and triggering what is called the “fight or flight response.” Generally waking us up to the fact that we might be in danger. If the threat is a false alarm, big deal, we get a scare, but if the threat is real we have a chance at saving ourselves. We either run like hell or kick some ass.
The thrill we experience when the threat is not real is the result of dopamine being released by the brain and causing us to feel good, even though we’re getting scared. It works differently for some people, which is why not everyone enjoys getting scared and some people absolutely love it to extremes.
Some of us stand in line outside a haunted attraction waiting to get the crap scared out of us. Some of us watch scary movies or read scary books at night. Some people enjoy jumping off of cliffs with parachutes attached. I mean, that’s just crazy right there.
The brain becomes overloaded with potential threats, like hitting the ground, that the conscious brain is already aware won’t really happen, it hopes. But the poor amygdala doesn’t trust a rip chord and is still responding as it has been evolved to do; sending you threat alerts. Since you already know the threat is not real you feel the fear as excitement due to chemicals in the brain.
A silhouette outside the window, creaking branches in the wind, unknown sounds, cold spots, footsteps, haunting moans and creaks, the earth rushing toward you at critical velocity. This stuff scares us, and for good reason! Our amygdalae are trying to protect us because, for all they know, something very bad is going to happen. Most of the time our rational brain steps in to quickly survey the situation and make a decision. But the excitement has been had.
Our imagination, the amygdala, and a little dopamine. That’s the recipe for thrill seekers and the rest of us who just like a little scare once in awhile. Remember your older sister jumping out as you walked down the hall? BOO! Whether you seek it or not, the thrill happens.
Many of us like listening to spooky stories as we sit around campfires with the dark night and forest surrounding us. We enjoy the stir of fear and excitement we feel. The same thing happens when we venture into a spooky location at night, or intentionally put ourselve in a scary situation.
Ever notice that every paranormal investigation takes place at night? Why would ghosts care what time it is? They don’t, we do. We get a bigger thrill being in a spooky, supposedly haunted house at night than during the day. That’s exactly why the crew from Finding Bigfoot ventures out at night. It’s more fun and exciting to look for scary things in the dark, try it sometime.
For an in depth look at the science of fear, and why we sometimes enjoy it, check out Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear by Margee Kerr.
So that’s that. Our amazing brains are the reason we get that rush of adrenaline, the excitement in fear. You guys have a great night now, I need to go lock my door. Just heard something outside. Probably the wind rattling the door handle, let me take a look….