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Home | Articles special | Shock and awe: the science behind why we love scares and thrills

Shock and awe: the science behind why we love scares and thrills

We all know the feeling – your heart rate increases, the hairs on the back of your neck rise, you feel the metallic wash of adrenaline through your veins, and your breath catches. You may experience this sensation while watching a horror movie, playing sweeps cash casinos, or riding a roller coaster, and some of us love it while others don’t.

So why do some of us chase after adrenaline-soaked hobbies, activities, and experiences? Well, science gives us several possible explanations about why some people actively seek out thrills and shocks whenever possible, while others avoid them at all costs.

Could it be in the genes?

Scientists and psychologists have considered whether or not thrill-seeking could be an inherited trait. The thought is that our ancestors from thousands of years ago existed as hunter-gatherers. As a result, several people in each community would need to be active hunters.

The late psychologist Marvin Zuckerman Ph.D. wrote on the topic. He noted that these hunters would be more effective if they were actively seeking the rush of adrenaline that accompanied the hunt. As a result, this trait would be selected for and passed down through the subsequent generations.

Could it be in the brain?

The rush of adrenaline begins in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is a grouping of neurons located at the base of the organ which serves to address the unknown, which we encounter in our day to day lives. During a fearful, or thrilling moment, the amygdala serves its purpose by registering the risk, assessing it, and then releasing a combination of dopamine, endorphins, and adrenaline, along with other chemicals to assist the body with reacting to the risk.

Each brain will assess risk differently, and as a result, the way the brain reacts to fear-inducing stimuli is different for every person. Scientists have suggested that individuals who have thinner sections of grey matter seem to perceive less of a threat in thrilling situations and, as a result, appear to seek bigger thrills. Scientists believe that further research may provide additional insights into the specific neurological traits which lead to individuals being attracted to thrilling experiences.

No matter what the threat or thrill is, however, the physiological response is the same – the vision narrows, the heart rate increases, and breathing patterns adjust to the influx of adrenaline.

Could it be in the aftereffects?

According to the psychologist and communications professor Glenn G. Sparks, the appeal of thrills like horror movies could be in the physical changes the human body undergoes during such experiences. Sparks has written that the way we feel after an adrenaline-soaked experience, such as watching a horror movie, is called the excitation transfer process.

While watching a terrifying horror movie, an individual’s heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing all increase, causing physiological arousal. This arousal means that after watching the film, all other activities – such as socializing, having dinner, and so on – will be experienced at a physiologically enhanced state and therefore enjoyed more. The argument goes that when you think back to the experience you had watching the scary movie, you will then only remember the experience positively because of the excitation transfer process which occurred.

Could it be something else?

Researchers have considered a myriad of different explanations of why some individuals may prefer to avoid adrenaline rushes. Some have suggested that highly emphatic individuals will be less likely to enjoy horror movies because they will not be able to separate themselves from the violence on the screen. Others think that interest in thrill-seeking activities is a result of socialization, or experiences which individuals had during childhood.

Reminding us what it means to be human

Other researchers have suggested that the burst of intensity makes an individual feel alive. You are suddenly aware of all of your senses and your surroundings when you have become frightened, and all of your senses and attention are focused on one particular thing.

In today’s day and age, when it feels like we are all simultaneously working, listening to podcasts, scrolling through social media feeds, while also having a conversation, a moment of adrenaline or thrill can be very liberating. It shakes us from our everyday distractions. Perhaps we could all benefit from an afternoon of skydiving, an evening of talking with strangers, or a night of terrifying movies.

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