Spooky Science: Your Brain Is Scary Smart

It’s late. A full moon hangs in the sky, and you’re making your way back from yet another night of trick-or–treating. Before you can think about how you’re going to devour the pounds of candy in your pillowcase, you hear it. A whistle in the wind causes the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up straight, and a chill races down your spine. Suddenly, everything is intensified—your heart races, blood runs cold and your chest feels like it might cave in, and your eyes dart in all directions as you try to escape the space as fast as possible.

It’s not fun and games; this is your body entering survival mode. Although fear can feel all-consuming, here’s some science behind it. Maybe, it’ll help quell your anxieties about the panicked feelings you may feel during this season of spooks.

Fear response originates from the amygdala, the emotion control center in our brains. According to the Smithsonian Institute, the amygdala activates when we detect any kind of threat stimulus. This could be anything from a hockey-masked serial killer to a jack-o’-lantern’s hair-raising grin.

The amygdala then triggers the body to respond appropriately: pupils dilate, our hearts beats faster and the brain becomes more alert. This is the body putting up a line of defense, making us more alert and ready to battle the perceived threat.

Unsurprisingly, our brains are smart enough to weed out real threats from the shadows in our closets! The hippocampus, another part of the brain that’s closely connected to the amygdala, is responsible for processing the context of the threat we’re seeing. Think of the hippocampus as a reassuring mother. What looks like a scary monster is just the neighbor kid in a costume. Everything’s going to be fine.