The Physiology of a Good Scare

Young scared couple is watching horror on TV.

Credit: iStock

With Halloween next week, you may be planning to head to a haunted house or cozy up on the couch with popcorn and a horror flick. Either way, you’re probably hoping for a good scare.

Enjoying the thrill of a scary movie or riding a rollercoaster isn’t the same as a real life-threatening situation, but your body doesn’t always know the difference. This is because the same senses are triggered when you’re startled in a safe environment as when there’s a genuinely fearful situation. Whether the fear is real or fake, your body leaps into action to prepare for whatever is going to unfold:

  • Your cardiovascular system pumps more blood and your heart beats faster.
  • Your brain sends adrenaline to your skeletal muscles, getting ready to move.
  • Your pupils dilate so you can see better.
  • Your digestive system slows down until the threat has passed.

Referred to as the “fight or flight” response, the human body functions similarly to how it would have thousands of years ago when faced literally with these two options: fight (for food or for your life, for example) or flight (run away).

During the physiological reaction to fear, scientists believe the brain stimulates the production of dopamine, a chemical that activates the pleasure center of the brain. Many people enjoy the feeling of a good scare and pursue other thrill-seeking behaviors to get the same “high.” Research suggests that thrill-seekers may have different brain chemistry than those who don’t enjoy a heart-pounding experience. If you don’t like to be scared, skip the tricks, enjoy the treats and remember to breathe deeply during this spooky season.

No matter where you fall on the scare scale, be safe this Halloween!

Erica Roth

One thought on “The Physiology of a Good Scare

  1. I did not know that whether fear is real or fake, your body leaps into action to prepare for whatever is going to happen. It is good to know that the “fight or flight” response comes into play with scary movies and roller coasters. Haunted houses are also a thrill. I find that distorted reality is often more scary than fiction.

    Like

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