Scary truth about fear

The annual celebration of costumed nocturnal confectionary harvest otherwise known as Halloween is upon us again. With all the attendant spooky symbolism of the occasion, it’s fitting that we take a look behind the masks at one of humanity’s oldest qualities: the fear response.

Scientists working at the University of Florida’s Center for the Study of Emotion and Attention have published a series of papers devoted to understanding the process and implications of being scared.

Andreas Keil, a psychologist at the CSEA, told NBC writer Alan Boyle that millions of years of evolution have optimized our brains’ hard wiring to cope with immediate threats — such as the predators that crossed paths with our ancestors in Africa. “Today, we rarely experience the lions that want to eat us, or snakes that want to kill us … but we respond a lot to cues where somebody tells us through a newspaper article or a Twitter tweet that a threat is around…,” Keil said. “The brain’s response to those cues is a lot like the response to the real thing.”

Other researchers clarify that being scared is not always a bad thing. In fact, apart from telling us obviously beneficial things like “get out of the way of that speeding car,” successfully coping with stress can lead to rewards in the brain.

Also speaking with Boyle, Ki Ann Goosens, a neuroscientist at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research who specializes in the study of fear, anxiety and stress states: “It’s good to be in a state of moderate arousal. That can actually enhance your ability to perform.”

People in high risk jobs such as military service members, police, firefighters and athletes all have brains conditioned to this kind of quickened stimulus response. There is however, a significant downside, when the stress moves from acute and episodic to a persistent chronic condition.

Goosens observes that chronic stress is bad for the brain. “Unfortunately, there’s less known about the effects of chronic stress,” Goosens said. “The effects that it has on the cells of the brain aren’t uniform. For a lot of the cells in the brain, their function is impaired. You can cause atrophy of cells in the brain.”

What we do know is that post traumatic stress disorder and hypervigilance can become emotionally paralyzing for those whose lives are held hostage by fears, stress and the inability to “turn it off.”

Goosens describes how these things work inside the brain: “One of the targets of chronic stress is the hippocampus, the area of the brain that plays a key role in managing memory. You can imagine that if you have atrophy in this structure, often it’s associated with memory impairment, but chronic stress actually causes the opposite response in a different part of the brain, known as the amygdala. Stress boosts activity in the amygdala.”

She goes on to state: “You might think, ‘Well, great, there’s a part of my brain that’s enhanced by chronic stress, but it turns out that the amygdala is particularly involved in negative emotions, like fear. … It’s actually maladaptive, because you’re better at processing bad things.”

Keil frames the fear response in terms of episodes for which we are able to form an action plan and those for which we are not. The presence or absence of a plan has profound implication for how we cope.

If we don’t have a plan, “the response is more unpleasant,” Keil says.

This in itself gets to the very essence of fear: the unknown. When bad things happen with warning, we are able to emotionally “brace” ourselves such that we might mitigate some of the impact. Whereas, unforeseen negative events just seem so much more injurious.

Of course, this idea isn’t new. In Robert Greene’s 1592 work, A Notable Discovery of Coosnage, he writes, “forewarned, forearmed: burnt children dread the fire.”

Perhaps armed with this knowledge, the coming onslaught of four feet high goblins and witches will be less ominous — just as long as the candy holds out.