Woman Covering Lower Half of Face with Blanket

Alexandra Gorn / Unsplash

Where does fear really come from?

Being afraid is generally deduced to a negative it denotes feelings of anxiety and is usually acquainted with a perceived threat. Sometimes, fear is sought out and people can’t get enough of it — think horror movies, haunted houses, and even roller coasters or skydiving. So, what actually happens in the brain when fear strikes, and why are only some people fans of the feeling?

The history of fear

Ever since the dawn of time, fear has had a place in our minds. It’s a biological response that was designed to help with evolution as humans progressed from their humble beginnings millions of years ago. Through all this time and evolution, some things stayed the same throughout the history of the human brain and one of those things is the fear reaction.

The anxious feeling is one of the rawest and fundamental feelings the human brain can possess. Scientists believe that when humans were first coming into existence, it was developed to help them recognize threats to their lives against the much larger and stronger predators of yesteryear. It was the basis for humanity’s survival of the fittest.

The ‘fight or flight’ response

Every process in the human mind is given a name and the one that fear hails from is called the “fight or flight” response. In basic terms, it gives the body a quick chance to decide whether or not it should flee (flight) the threat or fight against it. It’s a process that happens so quickly in the brain that it’s hard to determine which response will win out in real-time.

It’s only after the fact that we realize whether or not our brain was telling us to put the fists up or run for our lives. The funny thing about the fight or flight response, besides the fact that it’s seemingly controlled by our subconscious mind, is that it isn’t just associated with negative feelings like fear.

Positive emotions such as excitement, happiness, and even arousal can be attributed to that same reaction in the brain. So, what makes the response differ from the emotional state of being totally freaked out to having that rush of excitement and joy if it’s the same process in the brain causing them both?

Fear and the brain

The area of the brain that controls levels of fear is the amygdala. Located in the temporal lobe area of the brain, the nuclei that control the fear response have only one purpose and that’s to send the messages regarding a perceived threat.

Those messages could include the emotions involved in a said threat, whether they be anger or happiness, and it also controls how alert we should be in regards to that specific thing.

When the amygdala sends out those messages to the body, it then prepares itself for the aforementioned fight or flight scenario. It causes the body to experience heightened levels of stress hormones at the same time as activating the sympathetic nervous system to give the body a fighting chance, so to speak.

When the fear center realizes that something is there and it could seriously compromise our safety, the body experiences dilated pupils, increased blood flow and glucose to the muscles (in case we need to run away), a sped-up heart rate and breathing, and even slows down the parts of the body that aren’t going to be of any help when fleeing danger, such as the stomach and digestive system.

The brain’s interpretation

Not all fear is equal and the part of the brain that allows the body to recognize the difference is called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is associated with memory, reasoning, motivation, emotion, and learning. In terms of the fear reaction, the hippocampus plays an important role in the rationalization of perceived threats.

Before the fight or flight response takes hold, the hippocampus sits down to mull over all the facts, so that it can control whether or not you need to be afraid.

If you see a scary clown at a haunted house, the hippocampus tells the brain that it’s all good. It knows that that clown is just a person in a mask playing a part and the fight or flight response is inhibited. Now, see a scary clown in the woods in the middle of nowhere. The hippocampus is going to have your back to let you know that it’s not cool and you should get out of there.

How do we learn from fear?

As we grow and our brains develop, we experience a host of different experiences, some being good and some being bad. When it comes to fear, the brain tends to hold onto the experiences that made us most afraid out of necessity to survive.

If you were bitten by a dog when you were a child, your brain remembers. When you see a similar type of dog as an adult, that fear response might be activated because it remembers that once upon a time, there was a very real threat associated with that type of animal.

Fear and the memory

Another way the human brain controls the fear center is through language. Since we are a very linguistic bunch, humans, we can read the literal signs that can help send signals the brain about where we’re going, what we’re doing, and whether or not something is dangerous.

A danger sign, for example, is going to hit the fear center of the brain and let it know that there is an imminent threat to survival — and the brain is going to respond accordingly.

On the other hand, the brain can also do this to denote safety. If you had positive experiences through life in cars, driving in a car wouldn’t necessarily cause a fear response in you.

However, if you’ve experienced a car accident, no matter how mild, getting into a car may instigate the fear center of the brain because it was once a very real threat. The brain remembers a lot, so it can help navigate the world as safely as possible.

The positive side of the fear response

The fear response in the brain doesn’t always leave feelings of terror. As previously mentioned, it can also be associated with positive experiences in the brain. It all depends on certain factors that surround the experience. If you and your friends decide to brave a haunted house for a little bit of a rush, having that social support system will tell the brain that the threat isn’t all that threatening.

Fear also has the ability to take us out of the future or past and into the here and now. Its ability to pull you into the current moment acts as a sort of good distraction that can help lead to a more positive experience. The sense of control in certain scary situations gives the brain the ability to recognize and push for more positive associations, as opposed to negative ones.

The reality of the situation

The reason why some people seek out fearful situations such as horror movies, television, and haunted houses all comes down to how real their brain perceives the situation. If the situation is perceived as being too realistic in the brain, then the fear center acts as it would if it were really in danger, making those scary movies way too horrifying.

On the other hand, if something appears to be so obviously unrealistic, the part of the brain that responds to fear turns it into excitement because it knows the threat is not real. This, in turn, could put the person trying to experience the fun side of fear at a disadvantage. If the brain knows all too well that something is fake, the fear center isn’t activated at all.

To enjoy the positive side of fear, the threat has to be just real enough to scare but not so real that you are actually in a state of fear for your safety.

Overstimulation of the fear center

In the case that the fear response in the brain becomes overstimulated, people can develop certain mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a host of phobias (including the fear of socializing).

The fear response is designed to give humans a real fighting chance at survival, but it can be both fickle and unpredictable. It varies from person to person and what one may flee from, the other may welcome with open arms.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101: