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The Spooky Science of Fear

By Tracy Vonder Brink

Highlights 4Cs

Curious, Creative, Caring, and Confident™
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Dr. Margee Kerr explains the science of thrills and chills.
the science of fear

For some people, choosing to be scared can be fun. Going through a haunted house might make them scream, then laugh!

Dr. Margee Kerr has seen a lot of people thrilled to be scared. She is a sociologist, a scientist who studies how people relate to each other. She has set up “haunted houses” (walk-through exhibits of scary but harmless surprises) to see how people respond to fear.

“Some people like to be scared because they like the way their body changes,” she says. “Think of how your heart pounds and you feel a sense of energy when you’re going to a birthday party. Some feel that same kind of excitement when they watch a scary movie or go on a thrill ride.”

For others, that feeling takes their mind off their worries. “When we’re scared, our body changes in ways that shift our attention to the present moment,” Dr. Kerr says. “You’re probably not thinking about your homework that’s due next week when you’re playing a game of hide-and-seek.”

How the Body Reacts

Being scared is not always a treat. When a balloon pops, we may jump. Our heart beats faster and harder, and we breathe faster. How does the body trigger these reactions?

“When we encounter something we’re not familiar with or something startling, our brain and body start making changes to help prepare us for the unknown,” Dr. Kerr says.

These changes are part of the body’s “threat,” “stress,” or “fight-or-flight” response. This response is triggered by the five senses, which are always sending information to the brain. When they signal something unexpected, such as a balloon bursting, the brain sounds a danger alarm. It releases chemicals into the bloodstream, and those chemicals act on different parts of the body. For example, adrenaline (ah-DREN-uh-lin) makes the heart beat faster and harder. Once the body is alert, the brain decides whether or not the danger is real.

What Good Is Fear?

Fear is a tool that the brain uses to keep the body safe. It urges a person to hide, run away, or defend oneself. Faster heartbeat and breathing send more blood and oxygen to the muscles so they’re ready when they’re needed. Stress chemicals can make a person more alert.

Our memories also help protect us. We keep a close eye on babies because they don’t understand what might hurt them. As babies grow, they learn what’s unsafe, and their brains store those memories. Then their brains use fear to warn them of dangers. “We don’t want to be fearless,” Dr. Kerr says. “It’s good to have a healthy sense of what’s dangerous!”

Too Much Can Be Harmful

Experiences can lead to long-lasting fears that may stop a person from trying new things. We’re born with the ability to feel fear, but a lot of what we’re afraid of is learned.

“Being afraid doesn’t mean you’re weak,” Dr. Kerr says. A long-lasting fear can mean you’ve had a bad experience, and your brain doesn’t want you to have it again. If a dog bit someone, that person might feel afraid of all dogs. Other people may have no special fear of dogs but may be afraid of other things, such as heights, snakes, or spiders.

How to Feel Less Afraid

Many people have beat their own fears. Here’s one method: Instead of listening to their imagination, they learn the facts about anything that seems scary. Knowledge can help a person feel less afraid.

Dr. Kerr grew up on a farm. As a seven-year-old, she was scared of black bears in the woods. Later, she read about them. “Understanding the facts gave me a sense of confidence,” she says. “I knew for sure what to do if I ever encountered a bear and how to protect myself.”

From Highlights magazine