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Venture into the Safe-Scary

Venture into the Safe-Scary

Dear Students,

Recently, a local reporter wanted to talk to me as a neuroscientist who studies fear for a Halloween story he was preparing. "Why do we like to scare ourselves?" he asked. This question is relevant to our lives here in CNS.

We usually think of fear as a feeling—the distinctive experience of being afraid. But the feeling of fear is just one of a constellation of responses that prepare our mind and body to confront an imminent threat. Our sympathetic nervous system activates to prepare our body to fight or flee. Neurotransmitters like norepinephrine are secreted to increase our focus and mental arousal. The amygdala activates behavioral responses, like flight or freezing. Fear is a gift because it helps us survive dangerous situations.

We sometimes seek out experiences—like haunted houses or horror films—that make us afraid because some parts of the fear response are shared with other emotions that feel good. For example, what occurs when we are afraid is similar to what occurs when we find ourselves face-to-face with our crush or when we're intensely focused in a state of "flow." Scaring ourselves when we know there is no real danger can be a way to experience a sort of natural high. It can also be practice for real threat experiences. For instance, during training, athletes and soldiers create pretend high-pressure situations to prepare themselves for real-life high-stress situations.

So think about safe-scary experiences in a different light. Here in CNS, safe-scary might mean taking a class that looks daunting, introducing yourself to a professor who seems intimidating, taking an opportunity to do public speaking or showing up to an event where you don't know anyone. Rather than avoiding these safe-scary experiences, why not think of them as training opportunities or as healthy ways to get that horror-movie rush? Halloween might be over, but it's not too late to find a safe way to scare yourself. Give it a try.

Dr. Drew
Joke: Why don't skeletons go trick-or-treating? Because they have no body to go with.

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Friday, 27 January 2023

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