If a neuroscientist designed a haunted house, would you dare to enter?
Why Do We Like Being Scared?
Published November 1, 2017
Onscreen : Warning: This video contains graphic imagery that some viewers may find disturbing.
Let's get spooky. Why do we enjoy scary movies? First we have to understand fear.
Kerry Ressler : Fear is the physiological response of increased heart rate, sweating, increased breathing, activated muscles.
Onscreen: Emotions like fear are activated by the amygdala.
Kay Tye: It's deep in the middle of our brain. If you don't have an amygdala, you won't be afraid of anything. Sometimes people call the amygdala the lizard brain. It's a primitive mini-brain within our brain. Even crocodiles, which have scarcely changed for 70 million years have an amygdala.
Onscreen: The amygdala has endured because fear is essential for survival.
Tye: If a predator's going to eat me, I need to run in the other direction without thinking about it for a really long time.
Onscreen: The amygdala works fast. In milliseconds. (That's faster than you're able to think consciously.)
Suppose you enter a haunted house. What's happening in your brain when you get surprised?
Ressler: First you're going to see the eyes, the retinal neurons activating. Those are going to send projections to the middle part of the brain. Those then split, and you'll get some projections going directly to the amygdala. So within one synapse, the amygdala's going to get information.
Onscreen: Which triggers the fear response.
Ressler: Your body has adrenaline flowing, your amygdala is activated.
Tye: But there's not actually a threat.
Onscreen: Your conscious brain just needs more time to realize that.
Ressler: You'll get some projections going to the visual cortex that starts the cascade of conscious awareness.
Tye: Regions like the prefrontal cortex have the ability for higher cognitive functions like, "Oh, I recognize this, it's not a real monster, it looks like a person dressed up as a monster, therefore I'm going to suppress activity in the amygdala."
Ressler: And it leads to both a sense of relief and maybe a sense of humor.
Tye: So you reinterpret this emotional state as positive because it's the only other thing it could be.
Onscreen: Which explains why some people enjoy being scared when there's no real danger. There's another way to reduce the fear response.
Tye: If that stimulus doesn't predict any positive or negative consequences, then the amygdala stops responding to it.
Ressler: So the first time the monster jumps out, oh my god, you have the scream, the startle, the heart rate, etcetera. The next time maybe similarly. But maybe the third or fourth time, if the monster's the same, the place is the same, okay, I'm over this.
Onscreen: So what makes for the scariest haunted house?
Ressler: You would want changes in sensory cues that are really big. So from dark to light, big to little, things that really activate the sensory differences.
Tye: So that you don't habituate to the same monster popping up over and over, you would want to vary the stimuli. Some that are visual, some that are auditory, you feel a little chilly mist.
Ressler: In the ideal haunted house, you would have things that also play into people's most specific, unique fears.
Onscreen: Whether you're afraid of heights, or snakes, or animatronic ducks, if it activates your amygdala, you'll be spooked.
- Theresa Machemer
- Editorial & Production Assistance
- Ari Daniel
- Editorial Review
- Julia Cort
- Special Thanks
- Elena Renken
- © WGBH Educational Foundation 2017
Haunted house footage courtesy of Zombie Army Productions & Yokai Films
Animal brains drawn by Insil Choi and adapted from Tye and Janak, 2015
Crocodile Research Coalition
- APM & freesound.org
- (main image: dolls)
- Zombie Army Productions & Yokai Films