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Predictable Fear

Why the brain likes haunted houses

Imagine you walk into your house late one stormy night when suddenly the power goes out. And in the flash of the next lightning bolt, out of the corner of your eye you see the glint of a knife as a masked man steps out of the shadows.

Not fun right?

But stick the same situation into a haunted house or a movie, and people will pay good money to get the crap scared out of them. That seems kind of messed up. Why is that?

Turns out it has to do with the limbic system, the emotional circuit of the brain that evolved in mammals and includes the amygdala and hippocampus. Essentially the limbic system comprises the regions of the brain that are all connected to the hypothalamus, which controls the body’s stress response. So when you see the masked man, the hypothalamus instructs the body to increase your breathing and heart rate, dilate your pupils, and make your palms sweaty. Surprisingly though, when you feel excitement, the hypothalamus triggers the same physiological reaction.

There is very little physiological difference between fear and excitement. So if you’re scared, but nothing bad actually happens to you (e.g. you find a strange masked man in your house with a knife, but it turns out he’s making you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich), then it’s very easy to shift that fear into excitement, or even mistakenly think that you had been excited all along.

Interestingly, studies have shown that if you learn to anticipate fearful situations then you actually activate the nucleus accumbens, which is the reward center of the limbic system (Klucken 2009). Thus knowing you’re about to be scared is actually somewhat enjoyable. But if the fear is unpredictable then it doesn’t activate the nucleus accumbens. So fear activates the hypothalamus in the same way as excitement, and when it’s predictable it activates the brain’s reward center as well. And that really gets at the heart of the matter. We don’t like fear per se, we like predictable fear. It gets the limbic system fired up, making us feel more alive, but we don’t have to worry about actually dying.

We don’t like scary masked men in our houses because we never saw it coming, and we might actually die. However, we like haunted houses because we choose to go into them, and we know that in the end we’ll be safe. We like scary movies because we get the rush of fear without having to sacrifice anything (except like $14 for the movie).

So have a spooktacular Halloween. Oh, and P.S. Halloween costumes, whether scary, sexy or funny, also amp up your limbic system. I guess the limbic system is what Halloween is all about.


If you liked this article then check out my book - The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time

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Klucken, T. et al 2009. "Contingency Learning in Human Fear Conditioning Involves the Ventral Striatum." Human Brain Mapping 30:3636–3644

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