The Science of Fear – Why Do We Enjoy Being Scared?

Fear is one of the most well characterised emotions. The symptoms are obvious, and as an emotion it is highly conserved across most species (even snails have been shown to fear!). Through the use of both human and animal models we have learnt a lot about fear. In particular we know the main parts of the brain involved, and how a fear response is triggered.

So using this information, why do we get a kick out of being scared? Why do we enjoy rollercoasters? Why do people enjoy the dangers of caving? Why do we get drawn to playing board games that make us anxious and tense?

What Parts of the Brain Cause and Control Fear?

The neurophysiology of fear has been well characterised. Most of the main centres are found within the limbic system of the brain.

The amygdala is the main brain region associated with the processing of fear. It receives inputs from sensory and memory regions of the brain, and subsequently triggers the fear response by activating the hypothalamus.

The hippocampus is a key memory structure. It plays an important role in the contextual modulation of fear – it ensures fear is only initiated in response to dangerous circumstances. It is the site of memory formations to stimuli that you should fear.

The hypothalamus induces the fear responses within the body. It activates the sympathetic nervous system which stimulates regions within the body such as the adrenal glands and smooth muscle. The adrenal glands release hormones such as adrenaline, which produces effects like increased heart rate and blood pressure.

The prefrontal cortex is an area associated with complex information processing. It modulates fear responses on the basis of sensory information received.

What causes the fear response?

The thalamus is the region of the brain that receives sensory information very early on in neural processing. For example, as soon as visual information leaves the retina of the eye it is sent to the thalamus.

In the case of a sudden fear response, sensory information passes straight from the thalamus to the amygdala, triggering an immediate fear response. This is what happens with a sudden scare, and is why we often don’t know what scared us until after the fright has happened. This is why we instinctively react to a loud bang of a door.

With a slower fear response the information is first processed by the higher centres such as the sensory cortex and prefrontal cortex. The information then passes to the hippocampus, which compares the sensory information with previous experiences. Has this stimulus been dangerous before? If so, the hippocampus will activate the amygdala, and the fear response starts. The longer processing allows recognition of the fear.

So Why do we Enjoy Fear?

It seems strangely sadistic to enjoy scaring ourselves. But the prevalence of horror in popular culture highlights just how many people enjoy the feeling of fear. Horror movies are continuous box office hits. It is common for people to throw themselves off platforms, with nothing but a bungee rope separating them and death. Visitors to theme parks take pleasure in the sudden drops of massive rollercoasters (case in point – This is also not a phenomenon restricted to modern culture. The Roman Colosseum was a venue which made spectacles out of the horrors of butchery. Native Americans had many horror legends.

At this point it is important to note that all these fears are being induced in an environment we know to be safe. This safety is what allows us to manage the fear. In situations where the fear is uncontrollable, this sense of gratification from fear is lost. This may be a reason for a certain degree of satisfaction. The danger is present, but we can appreciate that we will suffer no harm.

Whilst the most obvious symptoms of fear are increased heart rate and blood pressure, physiological changes also include increased pupil dilation and increased blood flow to the brain. Increased oxygen and glucose supply to the brain increases brain arousal. Similarly, increased brain arousal and dilated pupils are characteristics associated with sexual arousal. The fear state mimics the state of arousal. It is therefore possible for us to mistake these symptoms of fear as symptoms for arousal, and take pleasure from the sensations. This appreciation of the sensations of fear is only possible due to the awareness of safety.

In addition to adrenaline, the neurotransmitter dopamine has been shown to be involved in the fear response, and is believed to control paranoia. Dopamine is more commonly recognised for its role in triggering pleasure – it is a reward hormone, conditioning responses to certain stimuli to aid our learning. It is also a key neurotransmitter involved in addiction. This might explain how people become addicted to the adrenaline rushes experienced with extreme sports, such as caving, the theme of Sub Terra.   

There evidence of increased fear increasing attraction, supporting this fear-attraction link. The experimental example most frequently referenced is an experiment performed by Arthur Aron in 1974. In the study, Aron sampled a group of 85 men who had walked over 2 bridges in Toronto. One bridge was the highly unstable Capilano suspension bridge, residing 230ft over a canyon. The second was a nearby stable bridge. He had the men answer a questionnaire after walking the bridges, given to them by an attractive woman. This woman also offered her number to participants, in order for them to contact her regarding said questionnaire.

The men who crossed the Capilano bridge included more sexual information in questionnaire than those crossing the stable bridge. Additionally,  ⅛ of men on stable bridge called the woman back, compared to ½ of those who walked the Capilano bridge. What does this show? If you are fearful, you are more likely to feel attracted to someone. This links back to mistaking fear for arousal. Evolutionary explanations for this phenomenon include that it encourages connection with people in times of danger, when survival is at risk. It makes sense that your chance of survival is increased if you are working together with other people.

So the next time you finish a game, and revel in the pleasure that has come from spending an hour immersed in fierce, tense competition, you will know that this pleasure arises from the adrenaline stimulated physical incarnations of fear.

In playing Sub Terra, the pleasure you will get from playing will mimic the pleasure that the characters in the game get from caving (when successful). However, your pleasure is likely to be greater. You are of course in a safe environment. The safety of the characters is by no means certain!

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