This is Your Brain on Fear

For something so awkward and squishy-looking, the brain is a deliciously complex and efficient thing that commands and controls everything about us. In the spirit of Halloween, I look today at what the brain does when we are afraid (with the help of Ellen Degeneres and her team).

When you experience something scary (or stressful), this is what happens to your brain and body:

The tiny part of your brain called the amygdala emits warning signals telling you to either fight or run away. Some of these signals go to your hypothalamus, which releases hormones that eventually tell your adrenal glands (they sit on top of your kidneys) to get adrenaline pumping. Your heart beats faster, you breathe harder and your muscles tense up. The amygdala also tells the rest of your brain to pay attention to what happens next: your mind is on high alert.

Then your pre-frontal cortex (something like The Voice of Reason) kicks in. It scans the context and situation and tells your brain to do one of two things:

  1. The situation and context you’re in isn’t actually threatening, so calm back down.
  2. The situation and context you’re in IS THREATENING – DO SOMETHING!

Then your brain, and hence body, does one of the above (or nothing – you’re paralyzed with fear).

Our brains haven’t evolved in 5,000 years and we still respond to potentially threatening situations as our ancestors would. But our brains also regulate our reactions and helps us get through life in a reasonably normal way (most of the time).

The Case of Andy, Jaqueline and the Haunted House 2014

To illustrate what fear does to the brain and body, I will use this year’s fright-filled haunted house adventure of Andy Lassner (Ellen Degeneres’s producer) and his trusty assistant, Jacqueline. It takes 5 minutes and a second to watch Andy and Jacqueline brave the haunted house on Ellentube.

What is happening here?

Amygdalas acting up, Andy and Jacqueline do their own valiant versions of fighting (yelling “stop it!”, “we got this”) and fleeing (to differing degrees depending on how space accommodates them). They also look for safety – Andy finds some by using Jacqueline as a human shield for a bit.

The two intrepid adventurers also exhibit physical manifestations of fear. They’re tense, they have their hands up and they walk hesitantly. Andy loses control of his bodily functions for a moment (“I just peed!”). Jacqueline experiences shortness of breath (“I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe”).

Happily, because they know it’s all a Universal Studios setup, their pre-frontal cortexes (PFCs) tell them that everything is okay. “Hey guys, there’s no threat, so calm down and carry on,” their respective PFC’s say. Andy’s PFC knows that things are not really threatening: “look – it’s a dummy… it’s a dummy…”, “oh, they can’t get to you – they’re behind glass”, and “it’s animatronics… it’s all mechanical”. Jacqueline’s “got this”. Andy and Jacqueline jump away from things popping out from the dark, but keep on walking through the funhouse because they know it’s all fake.

However, if the situation looked threatening to the PFC, then it wouldn’t shut the amygdala down. It would scream “ACTION”. For example, if that last guy who popped up outside of the haunted house drove a real stake through Andy’s head, Jacqueline would either come up fists swinging (fight), or PTFO ASAP (flee). My bet would be on the latter response. That’s what I would certainly do – take my amygdala, hypothalamus and the rest of my body parts and get the eff out of there.

And that’s your brain on fear. Go out and share some scare. Happy Halloween.

4 thoughts on “This is Your Brain on Fear

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