Six things you might not know about being scared and the science behind it

Erin Mullins, Reporter

Halloween is over for another year and as the sugar rush fades, have you ever wondered why dressing up and getting scared is so much fun and why we can never seem too old for it?

Here are a six things you may not know about the science behind fear, how our bodies and minds handle it and why some people just can’t seem to get enough of it.


#1 Flight or Fight

Most people have heard of the fight or flight response that people usually experience when they’re scared. This occurs in the amygdala which, according to Dr. Mark Bardgett, NKU psychological science professor, is the “fear center of the brain.”

“When people are frightened, we have a region of our brain… that registers [a threat] and prepares us for what to do when we’re in danger,” Bardgett said.

Still, it’s not just your brain that is affected when you feel scared.

“When you’re in a very stressful, threatening situation…your adrenal glands release adrenaline and that gets your heart rate up,” Bardgett said. “It will move a lot of sugar into your muscles so you’ll be able to bound out of that situation pretty quickly or bop the person in the head.”

Dr. Christine Curran, NKU biological science professor, said the adrenaline rush is a short-term response which is designed to give us energy very quickly.

“The adrenaline hits the cell, sends the signal and then we turn it off so…we can respond to the threat very quickly,” Curran said.

This adrenaline response also causes our heart rate to increase, which allows our body to pump more blood and to breathe faster to get more oxygen.

“[Our bodies] require oxygen to burn the fuel,” Curran said. “If we have more glucose then we have more energy for our muscles to do their work…whether we’re fighting back against the threat or running from it.”  OnlineScared


#2 Thinking Matters

You’ve probably heard a person describe a scary situation and saying something like, “It all happened so fast, I really didn’t have time to think.”

Well, they’re right.

“When we are in situations that are right on top of us, we don’t really use the higher parts of our brain or the parts that think. We tend to react very quickly,” Bardgett said.

In contrast, Bardgett said, “When you go into a haunted house or jump out of an airplane or ride a rollercoaster, you do have a little time to process it. You start using your cortex more… so you can prepare how to escape.”

Curran said the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making, executive functions and logic, matures last in young males and may explain why, “we tend to see more high-risk behaviors in that age group.”

“Logic isn’t overriding the emotions,” Curran said.


#3 Some can’t get enough

There are people out there that seek out thrills while others are happier doing a crossword puzzle or reading a book.

“Some people are what I call ‘harm-avoiders’ who…lead a kind of conservative life and then there are the ‘mality-seekers’ or people who are always looking for a thrill,” Bardgett said.

Curran said when we experience a thrill, “our reward system kicks in and that’s fueled by dopamine.” This makes us feel good and some people seek out more opportunities to feel that way again.

“When our body knows something bad happened, we have chemical signals known as endorphins that make us feel good,” Curran said. “So allowing something that seems negative to happen actually leads to a pleasurable response.”


#4 It might be better to go it alone

When facing a scary situation, most people would prefer to have someone else by their side. While going in a group might give us comfort, it might also make things worse.

“There is a social contagion theory that once one person losses it, now all the rest of the group starts getting more scared,” Bardgett said.

Bardgett explained this theory by saying that we might be handling the scary situation just fine but when we see someone else in our group get scared, it might trigger our brains to interpret the situation as scarier than we thought and, therefore, we become more scared.

“Having someone there to cope with you does help to reassure us,” Bardgett said. “I guess it depends on who you pick to go with you.”


#5 Our fears are learned

If being a parent wasn’t already scary, studies show that children can learn to be afraid from their parents.

“Parents are a main force in a lot of people’s lives,” Bardgett said. “If your parents are wary about certain things… they can transfer [those fears] onto you.”

Curran agreed and said that parents need to be aware that what they see as harmless could have lasting effects on their children.

“The amygdala helps us remember what was dangerous and strong emotions lead to strong memories,” Curran said. “[Parents] may not be frightened and may know it’s not real but it truly may traumatize your child.”


#6 Hair-raising experience

Whether you call them goosebumps, goosepimples or even chicken skin, feeling the hair on your arm or the back of your neck stand up on end when you hear a spooky noise in the dark or feel like something is behind you isn’t very much fun.

As it turns out, our bodies have a very good reason for doing that.

Curran said that while it’s not very impressive now when it happens, our evolutionary ancestors had a real need for it.

“Picture a mammal that’s covered in fur,” Curran said. “they’re going to look much bigger… to an opponent with all the hair standing up.”

This automatic response is a part of our sympathetic nervous system and is also why our eyes dilate when we detect danger.

“Our eyes dilate… to get a better view of what’s going to eat you or beat you up,” Curran said.
So the next time you go on a rollercoaster, watch a scary movie or walk through that haunted house, you’ll understand a little bit better why your body is behaving the way it is and why getting scared is good fun!