Why do we find things scary?

Happy Halloween!

Ever wondered why you don’t like clowns, or why just hearing creepy music on a film makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end? Today’s blog post is keeping things topical and asking why is it that we find certain things scary.

Image result for halloween

When we watch a scary film, it can activate the same part of the brain which would become active if we were under a real threat – the amygdala. This is part of the limbic system, and is thought to be responsible for processing aspects of memory and emotion. One particular function of the amygdala is to trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response to threatening stimuli – that feeling of fear where you don’t know whether to stand your ground or run away and hide.

From an evolutionary perspective, feeling fear is helpful. It would have been useful for our ancestors to be scared of snakes or poisonous spiders – stay away from these things and you’re more likely to survive. But what about when there’s no current threat, why do we get scared by a film, or a creepy picture?

One argument as to why we find some things creepy is that they contain an element of uncertainty. We find a clown, or someone wearing a mask scary because we can’t see their face, meaning we can’t use social cues to help us understand what is going on. The ‘bad guy’ in horror movies is often covered with a mask, or is a monster with distorted facial features, or in some cases completely covered by a hood, so no features are visible at all. We tend to feel uneasy when we see figures which look human, but not completely human. There is something off about them – think staring emotionless faces or someone wearing blacked out contact lenses. This uncertainty causes us to feel uneasy – there is no recognisable threat but the ambiguity causes a partial fear response in the brain and gives us the impression that something’s creepy. This theory can also be applied to people who are scared of the dark – it’s the not knowing what’s out there which causes fear

Sometimes, it’s not even things we see which make us feel scared, but things we hear. Ever wondered why the chords of the music to Jaws or the shower scene in Psycho are so iconically scary? Dan Blumstein, an academic at UCLA and expert on animal distress calls hypothesises that sounds made by animals in distress (think a piglet screaming or a dog barking) called ‘nonlinear chaotic noise’ also cause an emotional response in humans. HeΒ  argues that horror films use scores which feature these same characteristics: harsh, unpredictable or sudden higher sounds to provoke a kind of biological response which increases arousal (our emotional response). He tested his theory, and found that participants who were played different melodies scored sounds as being more negative if the melodies suddenly went higher, mimicking a scream, as opposed to lower.

Uncertainty is also what causes certain sounds to appear scary. Hearing a creak on the stairs is fine, if you can see someone walking up them. What makes that creak sound scary is when we can’t see the cause. Our minds start racing to think of possible explanations, and more often than not we choose something scary to fill the gap.

stephen king

 

 

 

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Phobias Part 2 – treatments

This week’s post is the second in a 2 part series about phobias, and will focus on different types of treatment, and what works. If you haven’t already, read part 1 (see here) for more information on types of phobias and possible causes.

If you’r a regular reading of my blog, you may remember that a while back I did a post on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and how that can be used to treat people with phobias. The main principle is to reduce the anxiety felt by encountering the phobia stimulus, be it crowds, flying, or needles. By teaching the patient breathing exercises to help them relax and working to change the thoughts (cognitions) about the phobic stimulus, therapists can help the patient to work towards overcoming their fear. The behavioural part of this technique is gradual exposure to the thing the patient is afraid of, whilst the patient works hard to control their breathing and stay calm. This exposure can help towards changing thoughts which contribute to the phobia such as ‘if I’m in a room with a dog it will bite me’, which in turn reduces fear.

For example, take a look at the diagram below which shows how phobias remain if the fears aren’t challenged. If therapy targets the thoughts, and tests the fear, then it is likely the phobia will be treated successfully.

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Another form of exposure therapy which has been used to treat phobias is known as ‘flooding’. Unlike in CBT, where the individual is gradually exposed to their fear, in this technique they are put straight in the worst situation they could imagine. This uses more behavioural techniques – as the body cannot sustain a physiological stress response for a long period of time, people begin to notice they feel calmer, even though they are in the presence of their fear. An example would be putting someone who was scared of birds in a room full of them! This also enables the individual to confront their worst fear and learn that nothing bad happens when they are in that situation.

Thanks for reading – there won’t be a post next week as I’ve got 2 interviews but I’ll be back the week after!

Phobias

Hi everyone, this week’s post will be the first of two – all about phobias. This first post will cover causes and types of phobias, and the next on will talk more about treatments. And, as no post about phobias is complete without a quick phobia quiz – what do you think these phobias are? (scroll down for answers!)

  1. Agrizoophobia
  2. Suriphobia
  3. Enetophobia
  4. Coulrophobia
  5. Phasmophobia

 

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by BromeliaCarnivor

Answers:

  1. Fear of wild animals
  2. Fear of mice
  3. Fear of pins
  4. Fear of clowns
  5. Fear of ghosts

 

Although some of these phobias are unusual, some are more common than others – with Arachnophobia (fear of spiders) probably being one of the most well known. However, there is an important distinction between people who simply don’t like spiders, and would prefer not to be in the same room as them, or not want to touch them, and people who are Β afraid of spiders i.e. have Arachnophobia. Sufferers of this phobia will experience extreme anxiety and panic if they come into contact with a spider, or even just look at a picture of one. This is a much more severe reaction.

According to the mental health charity Mind, there can be different reasons for a phobia to develop, from learned experiences to genetics. However, although it is true that some people develop phobias after a bad experience e.g. developing a fear of driving after a car crash, this does not occur for everyone with a phobia. Phobias can also be learnt, from observing other people’s reactions, for example if when you were young your older sibling always screamed and ran away from wasps, you might learn to do the same and develop a phobia of them, even if you’ve never been stung.

One famous (and very unethical) experiment on whether a baby could be given a specific phobia was carried out in the 1920’s by Watson & Raynor. The infant – ‘Little Albert’ had no fears or phobias at the start of the experiment, and the researchers wanted to investigate whether he could be given a phobia of white rats. As this picture shows, before the experiment started, he wasn’t frightened.

albert-rat

This study used principles of classical conditioning to give him a phobia – every time he was given a white rat, a loud noise was made by striking a metal bar with a hammer. Understandably, this noise scared him and made him cry. After this happened several times, he began to become upset when he was presented with the rat alone – the rat had become the conditioned stimulus (to read more about classical conditioning, see my blog post here). They also found that his phobia become generalised to other things that were white an furry, such as a white rabbit or when the experimenter wore a big white beard! No one is really sure what happened to Albert after this experiment, and whether his phobia continued into the rest of his life. It’s safe to say however that experiments like this one would not be allowed to take place now.

Thanks for reading and don’t forget to check back next week for Phobias Part 2.