Posted by: Elizabeth Barilleaux | October 28, 2010

The Science Of A Frightened Mind

Why is it so much fun to be scared?  Not truly terrified as in “oops!-my-foot-is-hovering-over-a-possibly-poisonous-snake”, but a good mental goosing in a haunted house or horror flick.  The secret lies inside the dark folds of the brain, roughly between self-control and sex. 

Almost all animals possessed of a spinal cord feel fear, but to actually enjoy it takes more than a base-model brain.  In complex vertebrates, primal emotions such as anger and fear are governed by a cranial nugget known as the amygdala.  A compelling external stimulus (such as, say, a bear interested in eating you) will light up the amygdala of most mammals, suggesting either fight (“Come on!  You can take him!”) or flight (“Run, run as fast as you can!”).  Human brains, however offer a useful third option – judgment and emotional control (“What a phony-looking bear!  Hang around and soak up some more!”) 

A study conducted by scientists at Columbia University discovered the source of this self-mastery – a control switch modulated by the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) located in the frontal lobe.  When faced with a conscious threat – something we know isn’t likely to hurt us – the rACC “dampens” the amygdala’s hysterics and allows us to think things through.   So, fantastic – you avoid peeing yourself – but why keep going back for more?

The compulsion to seek out another round of fear is a siren call from those beauties known as endorphins.  The word endorphin is a smushing together of “endogenous morphine” which literally means “morphine produced within.”  Our bodies generate endorphins in response to pain or stress (think exercise, spicy foods and orgasms).  When faced with sudden excitement, our nerves use the opiate-like analgesics to soothe the body and produce a sense of well-being.   A juicy jolt of fear ultimately ends at the same golden gate as an orgasm.  Hooray for cheap thrills – NOW it’s a party! 

Cheap thrills aside, this ability to control and even enjoy fear is a miraculous gift.  Without it, we might still be cowering in our caves somewhere – no New World, no fireworks, no moon landing, no sushi.  Rejoice this Halloween by voluntarily having the crap scared out of you.  May all your endorphin rushes be great ones.


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