The psychology of fear

Carl Robinette

Mon September 28, 2015 10:33am

The sensation of ice water down your spine. Goose bumps. The heebie-jeebies. You probably recognize the signs of fear, but have you ever stopped to ask what fear is? Or why it is?
Fear is an emotion but it’s also psychological and physical, and it is part of everyday life for everyone on the planet – fear of being late for work. Fear of car accidents and tax audits.
Fear responses in the brain are generated in the amygdalae, two brain structures that appear in the temporal lobe of humans and many animals. This is where a chain reaction occurs in the brain, sending off signals to your body that make your heart race, your stomach clench or your palms sweat.
It starts when you encounter or perceive an external threat, whether you are just startled or witnessing a werewolf attack. Your amygdala first receives a quick imprecise message from the thalamus. This quick response allows your body to prepare for potential danger. It works like a primer.
The primer is followed by a more precise signal from the medial prefrontal cortex which tells your brain how to react, according to the Dana Foundation, a not for profit company that supports neurological research.
You might jump, swing a first or freeze like a deer in the headlights clutching your chest, and your body and brain make the decision for you in a split second.
As unpleasant as fear can be, we enjoy the rush we get from it. Fear is at least part of why we watch horror films, surf, gamble and even celebrate Halloween. When a film critic calls something the scariest movie of the year, it’s a compliment.
But it is not because we necessarily enjoy seeing brain matter torn from a human skull by a horde of zombies. The pleasure we get is part of that chain reaction of fear formed in the amygdalae, according to
When the body reacts to stimulation with fear it releases chemicals like adrenaline and endorphins that are experienced as pleasurable as long as our conscious mind is telling us there is no big threat. This is what is commonly known as the “rush.”
The rush of fear is what gives animals and humans the power to run or fight for their lives. So when you’re watching your favorite horror flick this Halloween, the tingle that raises the hairs on your neck might be enjoyable, but one day it may save your life.