Five Things We’ve Learned About Fear Since Last Halloween

Including why screams get our brain’s attention and why a drop of “love hormone” in our nose could make us less fearful

(© Monalyn Gracia/Corbis)
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When scientists address the matter of fear, usually they end up zeroing in on the amygdala—a set of small, almond-shaped sections in both hemispheres of our brains. 

It’s often referred to as the body's “fear center,” although experts will tell you that’s not quite right because while the amygdala is clearly linked to the responses of our body to fear—sweating or a racing heart—it doesn’t by itself make us “feel” fear. 

That said, if there’s a part of our brain that drives the flight aspect of our fight or flight instinct, it’s the amygdala. The neurons, not surprisingly, get a lot of attention in these five studies on fear published in the past year.

Fear of the unknown: For starters, new research suggests that the amygdala is not just connected to our obvious fears, such as our response to seeing a snake slithering in our direction, but also more ambiguous ones, like the dread we can have of the unknown.  

According to a study published this month in Psychological Science, people whose amygdala has been damaged appear to be more trusting of the unknown. For this research, people were asked to say whether they found faces in photos they were shown to be trustworthy or threatening. The catch was that the central part of those faces was obscured, so it wasn’t possible to determine how friendly or scary they may have looked.

Oddly enough, people with damaged amygdala actually ranked the photos with obscured faces as being more trustworthy than the photos of a whole face. In short, those people had more positive feelings about the unknown than people in the control group did.  They weren’t fearful of what they couldn’t see.   

Love will find a way: One thing that seems to be able to calm the amygdala down is the “love hormone,” more properly known as oxytocin. In a study at the University of Bonn in Germany late last year, researchers administered oxytocin drops into the noses of 62 men and found that it had the effect the scientists were hoping to see: It lowered activity in the amygdala.

As part of the study, the scientists subjected participants to “fear conditioning,” in which they were shown images of neutral subjects, such as faces or houses, while occasionally receiving mild electric shocks. They were then randomly given either a single dose of oxytocin or a placebo.

Thirty minutes later they were given brain scans while shown the neutral photos again, albeit this time without any shocks. The study participants given the oxytocin showed an increase in activity in the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that helps to get fear under control—and less activity in the amygdala.

Even though they had been conditioned by the shocks earlier to feel fear when they saw the images, that reaction diminished after the oxytocin treatment. That suggests oxytocin could help ease fear, although the researchers acknowledge that more testing is needed before it could actually be used as a treatment.

The power of a good scream: There’s a good reason a scream gets your attention—and it’s not just because it’s loud. 

This past summer, David Poeppel, a neuroscientist at New York University, published a study in Current Biology, based on research involving close analysis of sample screams from YouTube videos, movies and volunteer screamers.

What he and his team found is that what separates screams from other sounds humans make has to do with how a scream changes in loudness. Normal speech varies only slightly in loudness—it changes at a rate of just four to five times per second. But a good scream, says Poeppel, can vary in volume as often as 30 to 150 times per second. 

That results in something known as “roughness”—a discordance in sound that gets our brain’s attention. In short, it excites the amygdala. Specifically, MRIs showed an increase in blood flow in the amygdala in people listening to screams.

Score one for scare tactics: Scare tactics work and can be particularly effective on women. That's the conclusion of a report, just published in the American Psychological Association’s Psychological Bulletin, based on analysis of 50 years of research on what’s known as “fear appeal.” These are fearmongering messages often used in marketing—specifically that if a person doesn’t heed the message, they open themselves up to harm or danger.

Not only did the researchers find that these tactics worked better when the target audience was mainly women, but they also determined that the approach has been particularly effective when the target audience is provided a way to avoid a threat. An obvious example: Showing people the terrible things smoking can do to a person’s lungs and pointing out the benefits of not smoking.

The difference between the reactions of men and women, the research suggested, reflects gender roles—it has long been more acceptable for women to have a more acute, emotional response to fear, while men generally have been raised to associate fear with helplessness. And that appears to reduce a man’s ability to respond to fear tactics.

Even when they aren’t so effective, fear tactics rarely cause an opposite reaction. Not many people told that cigarettes can kill you are spurred to take up smoking.

The horror?: And finally, at the risk of dampening the Halloween spirit, I share the results of two recent surveys on what Americans fear most. In neither case, did zombies or ghosts or even snakes fare well. In the first, called the Survey of American Fear, researchers at Chapman University in California polled 1,500 Americans and ended up with results that are more a sign of the times than a nod to icons of horror.

The most common fear—something that 58 percent of those surveyed said frightened them—is government corruption. Next was cyberterrorism, at 44.8 percent. That might seem strange, but one of the researchers pointed out that people tend to be more fearful of things on which they both depend and also feel they have little control over.

The Survey of American Fear did address more traditional Halloween fare, however, in a question about belief in paranormal activity. Half of those surveyed said they believed in it, and more than 40 percent indicated that they believe in ghosts. Apparently, 11.4 percent said they think Bigfoot is real.

The other fear survey, Linkagoal’s Fear Factor Index, which was done in partnership with market research firm YouGov, turned up somewhat different results. It found that just under one-third of those surveyed said they were afraid of horror movies (32 percent), but that ranked only slightly higher than fear of failure (31 percent). Not far behind were spiders (30 percent).

According to this survey, fear of failure varied by generations, with a higher percentage (40 percent) of Millennials saying it makes them particularly anxious than Generation Xers (31 percent) and Baby Boomers (23 percent). Men (31 percent) and women (30 percent) were found to be equally fearful of failure.

On a more prosaic level, people also conceded fears of changing habits, whether it was giving up chocolate (9 percent), going to the gym more regularly (6 percent) and quitting smoking (6 percent).

Some (3 percent) even admitted to being scared of eating salads every day.

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