By Madalynn Eckman
Fear is a fundamental, deeply wired reaction, evolved over the history of biology, to protect organisms against perceived threat to their integrity or existence. A person’s emotional and cognitive brain regions are wired to detect danger before they experience it. If someone were to be chased by a man in a pitch-black alley at night, the emotional and reasoning parts of the brain would agree that it is hazardous and tell them to run away. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex help the brain interpret the perceived threat. They are involved in higher-level processing of context, which helps a person know whether a perceived threat is real. For example, seeing a lion in the wild can trigger a strong fear reaction, but a view of one at a zoo is more likely to make people think that the lion is cute. This is because the hippocampus and the frontal cortex process contextual information, and inhibitory pathways dampen the amygdala fear response. Like other animals, we very often learn fear through personal experiences, such as being attacked by an aggressive dog. A threat stimulus triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates areas involved in preparing for fight or flight. This leads to bodily changes that prepare us to be more efficient in a danger: The brain becomes hyperalert. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow and stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs not vital in survival slow down. Fear starts in the brain and spreads through the body to adjust for the best “fight or flight” reaction. Some of the main chemicals that contribute to the “fight or flight” response are also involved in positive emotional states, such as happiness and excitement. So, it makes sense that the high arousal state we experience during a scare may also be experienced in a more positive environment. How we experience fear has to do with how we perceive ourselves as being in a safe space. When our cerebrum or “thinking” brain gives feedback to our limbic system or “emotional” brain, we can then quickly shift the way we experience that high arousal state, from one of fear to one of enjoyment. When we experience scary things with friends, we often find that emotions can be contagious in a positive way. We are social creatures, able to learn from one another. So, when you look over to your friend at the haunted house and she has quickly gone from screaming to laughing, socially you can notice her emotional state. When something scary happens, we are not preoccupied with other things that might be on our mind (getting in trouble at work, worrying about a big test the next day). Fear creates distraction, which can be a positive experience for people who are afraid of the unknown. People’s sense of control is vital to how we experience and respond to fear. When we can recognize what is and is not a real threat, relabel an experience and enjoy the thrill of that moment.