The Lizard Brain & the Science of Fear
Spooky and scary! What a great October theme for STEM Tuesday. I’ve been looking forward to this month for a long time, especially that awesome book list! October or not, we can’t really look into the spooky and scary without taking a step back and taking a dive into why they are appealing and how they work on our brains.
Many people are drawn to media and entertainment that contain a scary or spooky element. The scary and the spooky are all around us. Movies, TV shows, games, music, haunted houses, and literature. Fear sells!
We don’t think much about nonfiction when considering things that scare us but, as our book list exhibits, nonfiction can also use the power of the scare to entertain and inform readers. To put a fine twist on an old saying, the truth is scarier than fiction.
It all starts in the brain. In the limbic system to be exact. It’s a neurological system so inherent in biology that it is often termed the “lizard brain”. The scare (the stimulus) triggers the amygdala in the brain to signal the ancient fight-or-flight response. Motor functioning is put on high alert, the sympathetic nervous system goes into action and there is a release of stress hormones.
You are ready to respond physically to the scare just as eons of biological organisms have responded. Our primal response is primed!
- The brain becomes hyperalert.
- Our pupils dilate.
- Breathing accelerates.
- Heart rate and blood pressure increase.
- Blood flow to the muscles increases bringing more fuel (glucose) to them.
- Digestion and other systems that are not immediately needed for fight or for flight go into a reduced-function mode.
At the same time, the amygdala communicates with another part of the limbic system, the hypothalamus. Now is the time for the brain to think and analyze the potential threat the scare brings. The hypothalamus and the prefrontal cortex rapidly take in all the perceived data, assess it against memory and learned behavior, and then process whether the threat from the scare is real. If no real threat exists, the lizard brain shuts down the flight-or-fight response and we can now relax after the zombie character who chased us in the haunted house.
With literature and other media, this fear response can actually be a positive experience, which provides one explanation for why so many people love the spooky and the scary. There’s also research showing that controlled fright situations can actually benefit cognitive and emotional well-being. When the limbic system kicks in, the external stressors currently causing anxiety and lowering cognitive abilities get biochemically shoved to the back burner. The individual is given a respite from their problems for a period of time and is able to function again at a higher emotional and cognitive level. We feel better and perform better after a controlled fright!
See? Scary and spooky–in an appropriate and non-threatening manner that is unique to each of our individual brains–are actually good for us. Scary and spooky fiction AND nonfiction fit this bill perfectly. Children’s fiction and nonfiction allow readers to experience and learn in an age-appropriate way.
How about that? The trash in/trash out theory my mom used to preach to me when I read scary things, watched scary movies, or dissected frogs and examined roadkill was not 100% true. I was training my lizard brain! (I do believe Mom would agree with the labeling of my adolescent brain as a “lizard brain”.)
As writers, readers, and consumers of all kinds of media, we can learn to use the tool of fright in our work to enhance, entertain, and educate at a higher level. We first must learn to tap into and put to work our limbic system. Knowing how the brain works can help creators appeal to the brains of our audience. Fear can be a powerful thing.
Have a great October 2023 and enjoy a fright or two! I know I will. Bwahaha…
Mike Hays has worked hard from a young age to be a well-rounded individual. A well-rounded, equal-opportunity sports enthusiast, that is. If they keep a score, he’ll either watch it, play it, or coach it. A molecular microbiologist by day, middle-grade author, sports coach, and general good citizen by night, he blogs about sports/training-related topics at www.coachhays.com and writer stuff at www.mikehaysbooks.com. Two of his science essays, The Science of Jurassic Park and Zombie Microbiology 101, are included in the Putting the Science in Fiction collection from Writer’s Digest Books. He can be found roaming around the Twitter-sphere under the guise of @coachhays64 and on Instagram at @mikehays64.
The O.O.L.F Files
This month’s version of the O.O.L.F.(Out of Left Field) Files creeps into the dark and dank cellar to explore the scary and spooky side of our brains and how fear works to manipulate our behavior.
What Is The Limbic System? Definition, Parts, And Functions via Simple Psychology
TED talk Dr. Margee Kerr: Why do we like to be scared? (2018)
5 Things You Never Knew About Fear from Northwestern Medicine
Hidden Brain podcast The Science of Fear (2015)
And finally, where would Spooky & Scary Science Month be if I didn’t include my scariest movie scene of all time?
(Thank you, John Carpenter for understanding how my lizard brain works!)