Happy(?) Halloween: The Science of Fear

It’s close to midnight, and something evil’s lurking in the dark.

Have you ever wondered about that shiver that crawls up your spine whenever you watch a scary movie? How about that feeling of dread that seems to effervesce from the pits of your stomach when you’re about to speak at a presentation that you clearly weren’t prepared for? Or maybe that time when your palms were sweaty, your knees were weak, your arms were heavy and you had vomited your mom’s spaghetti all over your sweater? (Okay, maybe that last one didn’t happen.)

This scene from The Ring 2 traumatised the writer as a child, leaving him cowering under his covers for at least three nights. (Source: IMDB)

The concept of fear has gripped our minds even before the dawn of mankind. It is an integral part of the human experience. It is one of our most primal of emotions, a feeling that stems from the deepest parts of our consciousness. But what is it, exactly?

What is Fear?

Fear is a feeling many organisms experience at the onset of perceived danger or threat. It exists in many forms, from the retraction of a tortoise into its shell, to the fleeing of a rabbit from a fox, to the dread we feel in the dead of the night, as we contemplate life, and its uncertainties. It is, essentially, a survival mechanism.

A tortoise hides within its shell in response to a perceived threat. (Source: Getty Images/ballyscanlon)

How Do We Experience It?

As with any other emotion, fear is regulated by the brain, specifically the amygdala. The amygdala is a set of nuclei in the shape of an almond that is located deep within the temporal lobes. It plays a vital role in triggering fear. In fact, people with defective amygdalae actually fail to display symptoms of fear. The amygdala is basically our brain’s alarm system. It is the part of the brain that tells us that things aren’t great and we should be afraid, be very afraid.

The location of the amygdala within the human brain. (Source: Neuroscientifically Challenged)

What Happens To Our Bodies?

When the amygdala is activated, it causes our brain to flood our bloodstream with stress hormones. This triggers a series of bodily changes, resulting in the classical signs of fear that we’ve grown to loathe. Your pupils dilate, your heart rate skyrockets, your breathing accelerates. That’s what happens when adrenaline courses through your body, preparing it in the advent of a threat. The following infographic by Purch Creative in collaboration with Live Science shows the parts of the body that react to fear.

The different bodily reactions we display when we’re terrified. (Source: Purch Creative, Live Science)

Your amygdala also triggers your hippocampus, the part of the brain that allows you to process said threat. The hippocampus, along with the prefrontal cortex, interprets the threat, allowing you to understand whether or not a threat is real.

In other words, the amygdala is the ‘emotional’ part of the brain, whereas the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are the ‘thinking’ parts of the brain. For example, when you’re in a haunted house, the initial reaction to a ghost hiding in the shadows is one of fear, but as the ‘thinking’ brain rationalises the fear, it sends messages to the ‘emotional’ brain in order to calm it down, allowing you to laugh it off with your friends. In contrast, being cornered by a stranger in a dark alley sends your ‘thinking’ and ‘emotional’ brains into overdrive, and as the brain realises that the threat is real, you promptly freak out.

The amygdala, prefrontal cortex and the hypothalamus: the parts of our brain responsible for the detection and interpretation of fear. (Source: Momentous Institute)

The amygdala also plays a part in conditioned fear, whereby a stimulus that is originally of a neutral nature is consistently paired with a stimulus that causes fear. This can be seen in sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and phobias, when seemingly harmless memories or sights can trigger an anxiety response.

Is It A Good Thing, Then?

Nonetheless, fear has been an important aspect of our evolution. Fear has been an important driver of human development, allowing us to recognise threats ranging from predators to natural disasters. The fight-or-flight system our brains developed has been pivotal in our push to the top of the food chain, giving us the ability to discern whether or not a threat was worth taking on.

Fear has also played an important role in human development from a non-evolutionary standpoint. The fear of risks has always led to us making calculated decisions, of which many have had far-reaching consequences. The looming prospect of another global war led to the establishment of the United Nations. The dread of a nuclear apocalypse led to the recent conception of the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty. Fear has, in one way or another, kept humanity safe throughout the ages.

Signing ceremony at UN Headquarters in New York for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 20 September 2017. (Source: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras)

Fear is also a great teacher. We learn to watch out for things that can harm us. As a matter of fact, most of our fears are learnt. We are only born with two innate fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud sounds. Everything else – the fear of snakes, the dark, bad grades, are the result of our environment and culture. We learn to associate certain things to unpleasant memories, which allows us to steer clear of trouble.

However, it is important to note that one can almost always overcome their terrors. Continuous exposure to our phobias – such as heights and insects, forces us to build a tolerance towards it. When we “face our fears”, we develop a mental fortitude against it. To quote Mark Twain,

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.

Fear isn’t always a bad thing. It keeps us alive. After all, we didn’t get this far by fighting sabre-toothed tigers, did we?


By Saran Anandan

Feature image obtained from IMDB

West Malaysian spirit of magniloquence, periphrasis and procrastination. I have half a mind...

Comments are closed.