The Amygdala – Why We Get Scared and Like It

Well, not everyone likes getting scared, but why do so many of us dig walking through a haunted attraction, down dark roads, or watching scary movies? It doesn’t matter how well you know your environment, on a 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 sentinel in every human brain, the amygdala. This amazing piece of grey matter cues in on stimuli in our environment way before the rest of the brain is even remotely aware of it. They are tweaked through evolution to recognize facial characteristics, pick up on sounds and other things, even proximity alerts, like how close people are standing to us before we are consciously aware of it.

The Amygdala is the early warning system of the brain that helps us avoid danger. Without the evolution of the amygdala the human race would probably not exist. Our early hominid ancestors were able to survive the dangers of their time with the invaluable aid of this biological surveillance system.

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” all before we are conscious enough of the situation to help ourselves. The amygdala wakes us up to the fact that we might be in danger and puts innate systems into action. If the threat is a false alarm we get a scare, but if the threat is real we have a chance at saving ourselves. We either run like hell or fight.

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.

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.

The brain becomes overloaded with potential threats but you are ultimately aware that the threat is not real so 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. Roller coasters, bungee jumping, ferris wheels, jump scares in horror movies. This stuff scares us because our amygdalae is programmed to respond to perceived real threats. It doesn’t know you’re watching a horror movie. It’s interpreting sights and sounds, and assumes something very bad is going to happen.

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.

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….

A Link to the Distant Past: Why We Like to Be Scared.

What is it about campfires, the dark, surrounding woods, tales of the unexplained, of ghosts and monsters, that stirs our imaginations and entertains us so?

When you think about it, darkness is a key element in most situations that bring us a chill or a fright. When is the best time to drive down that creepy road, stroll past the cemetary, consult a Ouji Board, or tell spooky tales? After dark, of course.

Light illuminates our surroundings, and when light is on we have no need to suspect that anything is lurking nearby. We can clearly see it is not. But switch off that light and darkness closes in.

We humans are fairly rational creatures most of the time, and even in the dark we are pretty certain that nothing is lurking “out there” to get us. But there is a part of our brains that doesn’t sleep easy, and it’s linked to our very distant ancestors, who existed millions of years ago. Their survival, and ultimately our existence, relied on such autonomous workings of the brain.

The thrill and excitement we feel is a direct result of an adrenaline rush prompted by the fight or flight response. It is a sort of alert mechanism that operates without any direct thought. This response, which originates in a part of the brain called the amygdala, would have prompted our ancestors to run from potential danger, or prepare to face an attacker, even if nothing were there. Better safe than sorry.

The amygdala is like an early warning system, and it ensures that no time is wasted in thinking about what to do. Before we know what is happening, our autonomic nervous system — which controls many involuntary functions such as heart rate, breathing, and pupil dilation — is ramped up and the adrenal glands are prompted to get busy with their adrenaline production.

In rapid succession we may get goose bumps, a tingle up the spine, and then our blood pressure will rise, and our breathing will increase, causing us to become more alert. Heightened senses allow us to keenly monitor our surroundings, and we may tense up, preparing to run or stand and fight once our internal alarm is satisfied that something really may be there to harm us. It just takes one more bump, crack or rattle from the darkness beyond, to set us off.

This process can be fully appreciated if you happen to visit a haunted house attraction this Halloween. Pay attention to your involuntary reaction as you walk slowly down that darkened corridor, anticipating the shock and fright that’s waiting around the corner. You can try to control yourself, but that ancient part of your brain doesn’t really care what you think. It is interested in just one thing: your survival. Fear, real, or imagined, has turned it on. Better safe than sorry.

We feel a great sense of relief, and that rush of adrenaline, accompanied with an increase of blood and oxygen to the brain, gives us a sort of “high,” which makes it fun to get scared. Round that corner may lie danger, and you will be prepared to kick, punch, and scream, or quickly turn and run. You’re amygdala will see to that.