Fear is your brain reacting to the expectation or anticipation of possible harm. That doesn’t sound like much fun. So, why do so many of us seek out heart-pounding, can’t-catch-your-breath, pee-in-your-pants scares? Well, there are a lot of reasons. Let's start by understanding how the brain actually processes fear, and how the body responds.
Our brains are wired to be on the lookout for threats in the environment. It’s so important, multiple pathways carry this information straight from your senses to your brain. A signal first hits your thalamus and then zooms to your amygdala, which puts you on high alert.
The fear signal then zips to an ancient part of your brain called the periaqueductal gray, responsible for the fight-or-flight response, and speeds on to the hypothalamus, which controls the classic bodily fear responses: thumping heart, skyrocketing blood pressure, and rapid breathing. Then your adrenal glands start pumping out adrenaline. Glucose and cortisol are released into your system, keeping you ready for action.
The chemicals released during a fight-or-flight moment can work like glue to build strong memories, sometimes called flashbulb memories, which is why very vivid, scary memories seem to be burned into your brain.
Cool! But how does this actually make us feel?