Neurobiology of Fear

Continued from post What is Horror?

If the Horror genre is best defined by the intention to elicit and manipulate the emotion of fear, what then exactly is the emotion of fear?

The dictionary defines fear as: a feeling of agitation and dread caused by the presence or imminence of danger.

Persons experiencing fear display increased alertness, concentration on the source of fear, attack and fight-or-flight behaviors, and evidence of sympathetic-nerve stimulation such as cardiovascular excitation, superficial vasoconstriction, and dilation of the pupils.

Fear evolved as a basic survival mechanism. It is the ability to recognize danger, which leads to an urge to confront the danger, or flee from it: the fight-or-flight response. This mechanism allows animals to move quickly away from a location of perceived threat and hide.  All people experience fear as an instinctual response to potential danger – this mechanism is important to the survival of all species.

Although many fears are learned, the capacity to fear is part of human nature.  Many studies have found that certain fears are much more common than others.  These fears, such as fear of heights, predatory animals, darkness, etc. are also easier to induce in the laboratory. Because early humans who were quick to fear dangerous situations were more likely to survive and reproduce, certain innate fears developed as a result of natural selection.

People also develop specific fears as a result of learning.  Fear can be acquired through a traumatic event. The area of the brain most involved with the learning of conditioned fears is the amygdala.

Amygdala

The amygdala is located behind the pituitary gland. In the presence of a threatening stimulus the amygdala generates a secretion of hormones that influence fear and aggression. Once response to the fear stimulus commences, the amygdala elicits the release of hormones into the body to put the person into a state of alertness, in which they are ready to move, run, fight, etc.

There are many physiological changes in the body associated with fear. The fight-or-flight response accelerates heart rate, dilates blood vessels, and increases muscle tension and breathing rate. Only after this series of physiological changes, does the consciousness realize an emotion of fear.

After a situation which incites fear occurs, the amygdala and the hippocampus record the event.  The stimulation of the hippocampus will cause the individual to remember many details surrounding the situation. Memory formation in the amygdala is generated by activating the neurons in the region.  Once the person is in safe mode, meaning there are no longer any potential threats surrounding them, the amygdala will send this information to the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) where it is stored for similar future situations.  The storing of memory in the mPFC is known as memory consolidation.

Recent studies show that a person learns to fear regardless of whether they themselves have experienced trauma, or if they have only observed the fear in others. Fear responses in the amygdala can develop in both conditions.

Fear is transferable.

This is partly achieved through mirror neurons.  A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.  The neuron ‘mirrors’ the behavior of the other, as though the observer himself were acting, not simply watching. Such neurons have been directly observed in primates and other species. Mirror neurons are the neural basis of the human capacity for emotions such as empathy.

Fear and the emotional response to dangerous situations can be triggered through observation and simulation.  Recreational Horror, such as Horror movies, roller coasters, and Haunt Attractions, all simulate danger for the bodily pleasure of the fight-or-flight response in the absence of real threat.

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4 Responses to “Neurobiology of Fear”

  1. James Fallone Says:

    Very interesting. The mirror neuron’s transfer of fear seems is a good tool to help incorporate fear in art I would think. Including a character in the piece reacting with fear seems like it would increase the level of unsettlingness of a work by providing the cue to the view that they should be frightened.

  2. Jack Flacco Says:

    Fascinating. Hitchcock is making more and more sense to me as the years go on. He used to say that fear is in the unseen. That only one person in the audience needs to fear, it will then spread like a fire. I never knew a mirror neuron existed. It explains how one person screaming and yelling catches on to other people, and they may not even know why they’re screaming and yelling.

  3. ashesandrashes Says:

    Reblogged this on Ashes and Rashes and commented:
    Interesting article! Totally relevant. I now understand what draws me to the macabre >:)

  4. Mitch Munster Says:

    Do mirror neurons effect other emotions, such as anger & sexual arrousal?? I can almost verify that they do so with laughteer.

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