Joanne Cantor, Ph.D.

Joanne Cantor Ph.D

Conquering Cyber Overload

This is Your Mind on Media: You’re Not Crazy—You’re Human!

Even though we know there’s no Jaws in that pool, our amygdala isn't so sure.

Posted Jul 01, 2010

"Anyone who's scared by a film must be raving mad," says Peejay, one of 130 people who have commented on a recent story in the London Daily Mail.

Distribution of Comments in the London Daily Mail about Long-Term Movie-Induced Fears

The article describes our research on the long-term effects of frightening movies.[1] Having performed an informal content analysis of the relevant comments, I can report that about 10% of the entries are like Peejay's. Another 11% of the commenters claim that reality is much scarier than fiction. And 3% complain that such research is a waste of time and money. The remaining 76% of the commenters meet Peejay's criteria for raving madness, I guess. 

Many People Give Up Swimming in Lakes and Pools After Watching "Jaws."

They name movies that freaked them out, and many of them admit to being uncomfortable to this day in certain ordinary situations related to their movie. The usual effects are mentioned: People giving up swimming after seeing Jaws, dreading the shower after seeing Psycho, and feeling phobic around clowns after movies like Poltergeist and It. Family movies such as The Sound of Music, children's classics like Bambi, and beloved educational TV characters like Big Bird are there, too.

  • "Get over it people it's just a movie." says another commenter.
  • "Never heard such rubbish—bunch of pathetic wimps," says a third.

Are three-quarters of us mentally ill wusses? Not according to the neurophysiology of fear. Joseph LeDoux [2] who studies fear reactions to real-life threatening events, identifies two distinct areas of the brain that are involved in the fear response: the prefrontal cortex, the area involved in conscious reasoning, and the amygdala, an almond-shaped lower-level area that's important for emotions. When you have an intense fright reaction, the amygdala responds fastest and creates the physiological response we refer to as fight-or-flight. Your cerebral cortex takes more time to react as it consciously evaluates whatever it was that frightened you.

Since the fear system is designed to help us survive life-threatening situations, LeDoux argues that it's important that our memories hold tightly to any intensely frightening experience. This way, we're prepared to protect ourselves if we're ever in that situation again. Research shows that although our conscious memories of traumatizing events are not always correct and are quite malleable over time, implicit fear memories that are stored in the amygdala are highly resistant to change. In fact, LeDoux says they're "indelible." [3]

The Amygdala Holds on Tight to Memories of Whatever Has Traumatized Us.

Our reactions to films are often irrational: Even though we know it's only a movie when we're watching it, if we become intensely frightened our amygdala will hold onto that memory as if our life depended on it. So, for example, if Jaws traumatized us as a child, we react strangely when we go swimming now: Our head may be telling us there are no sharks in pools, but our heart may be beating extra fast. It's getting ready to escape the vicious beast that it suspects may appear any moment. [4]

Keep in mind that our brains evolved a long time ago, long before reality was predominantly virtual. Back then, if you saw a vicious animal, a grotesque distortion of nature, or other people expressing fear, you were probably in mortal danger. [5] Today we see these things all the time on a variety of digital devices. And even though our higher-order reasoning tells us we're safe, our amygdala apparently isn't so sure.

So, no, Peejay, we may be irrational at times [6], but we're not nuts. Even as adults, our emotions can be strongly affected by what we watch, even if it's make-believe. And these emotions often linger.

The takeaway?—If you're feeling unnecessarily stressed out, keep your amygdala in mind as you choose your entertainment.

[1] Harrison, K. S., & Cantor, J. (1999). Tales from the screen: Enduring fright reactions to scary media. Media Psychology, 1 (2), 97-116.
Cantor, J., Byrne, S., Moyer-Gusé, E., & Riddle, K. (2010). Descriptions of Media-Induced Fright Reactions in a Sample of U.S. Elementary School Children. Journal of Children and Media, 4 (1), 1-17.
Cantor, J. (1998). "Mommy, I'm scared": How TV and movies frighten children and what we can do to protect them. San Diego: Harvest/Harcourt.
Cantor, J. (2004). Teddy's TV Troubles. Madison, WI: Goblin Fern Press. 

[2] LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[3] LeDoux (1996), p. 252.

[4] Cantor, J. (2006). Why horror doesn't die: The enduring and paradoxical effects of frightening entertainment. In J. Bryant & P. Vorderer (Eds.) The Psychology of Entertainment (pp. 315-327). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Cantor, J. (2006). Long-term memories of frightening media often include lingering trauma symptoms. Presented at the Association for Psychological Science Convention. New York.
Cantor, J. (2009). Conquer CyberOverload: Get more done, boost your creativity, and reduce stress. Madison, WI: CyberOutlook Press.

[5] Cantor, J. (2009). Fright reactions to mass media. In J. Bryant & M. B. Oliver (Eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research. (3rd Ed.), pp. 287-303.

[6] See Ariely, D. (2010). Predictably irrational, revised and expanded edition: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. Harper Perennial.

More Posts