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Halloween...Fear With A Purpose

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 1st 2007

It's the perennial Halloween question. Why do we enjoy scary movies, haunted houses, etc.? Some psychologists (called "evolutionary psychologists") suggest that the answer has to do with how evolution and natural selection have shaped our brain, behavior, thinking styles, and emotional reactions.

Fear is a "hard wired" response that has been with us since the beginning of our species. Why? According to evolutionary psychologists, it's a driving force that's adaptive. Cavepeople who weren't afraid of anything were probably killed or injured. In other words, if you weren't afraid of a saber-toothed tiger, you wouldn't learn to take steps to avoid being attacked. People who didn't learn appropriate fear responses didn't survive and produce offspring. Those who did passed on our ability to experience this emotion and engage in appropriate responses to it.

Our brains include several different structures related to fear. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure that detects potential threats. If the amygdala recognizes danger, it "consults" with the hippocampus (where memories related to emotions are stored) and the cortex (where decisions are made) to determine whether or not to activate the famous "fight or flight" response.

If brain judges the situation as dangerous, the locus ceruleus communicates with the cingulate gyrus and hypothalamus by secreting norepinephrine. Norepinephrine (also called adrenaline) is a neurotransmitter (a chemical that carries messages throughout the nervous system) that ramps up our sympathetic nervous system. As a result, blood is diverted to the muscles, so we can confront or escape from danger. In addition, our lungs take in extra oxygen, our heart rate increases and our pupils dilate, which also allows us to kick butt or take off. We are also better able to withstand pain, pay attention to the situation, and make rapid decisions. At the same time all of these things are ramping up, other body systems are delayed or shut down. Ever felt like peeing your pants or puking when you were seriously scared? That's your body's way of getting rid of unnecessary waste products in order to devote muscles and energy to more important matters like getting out of Dodge.

The neurotransmitter dopamine is also activated by intense situations. Dopamine stimulates the brain's reward and pleasure centers, enabling us to not only anticipate rewards, but to take action to move toward them. So, blame the dopamine for helping to draw us toward controlled scary situations that aren't truly dangerous. If we "survive" the horror movie, or the haunted house, we get all of the chemical benefits described above, while remaining safe. In other words, it's a relatively easy and direct way to get an adrenaline and dopamine "rush".

According to evolutionary psychologists, we are biologically driven to seek out these neurotransmitter "rushes". An urge to explore our environment, seek out sensation, and take risks were additional keys to the survival of our species. Humans who were proficient at tracking and killing game, finding mates from other (sometimes hostile) groups, and moving to new places to find food survived. Those who were uncomfortable with novel and intense situations perished.

Most of the time, for many people today, life is relatively safe and stable (some might say 'boring"). However, for many people, this urge to seek out new, intense sensations and experiences persists. Contemporary psychologists label this personality trait "sensation seeking". Sensation-seekers enjoy activating the brain's pleasure centers through exciting experiences. They enjoy high-intensity music and art, legal and illegal substances, extreme sports, driving recklessly, having a variety of sexual partners, playing intense computer games, watching scary, violent, or sexually explicit films, and so on. Moderate sensation seekers enjoy some or all of these activities occasionally.

So, scary experiences allow us to shake things up a bit and get rewarded with some dopamine and adrenaline surges. For some, that beats eating those Snickers they stole from the candy bowl.

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