Apart from that time our biology teacher explicitly stated that the number one aim of living things is “self-preservation”, our common sense also tells us that it is better to stay away from dangerous situations.
Yet, for some very weird reason, some of us really get a kick out of getting the daylights scared out of us.
But why is this so? Why do some people enjoy getting scared? The answer may fascinate you.
While it is true that living things (like we – humans) abhor danger, living things also have an insatiable desire for stimuli. In fact, the differentiator between the living and the non-living is in their ability to feel stimuli and respond to them.
That said, a person who is not feeling anything – maybe because they are asleep, or zoned/spaced out – isn’t very much interested, nor do they necessarily feel “alive”.
This is counterintuitive. In fact, it sounds a bit contradictory. But it isn’t. The secret is in the brain – how it interprets the situation we find ourselves in.
The normal physiological response to danger...
...are exactly the same physiological responses we get when we are excited.
Yet, depending on how your brain interprets that situation (i.e. if it is truly life-threatening), you may find yourself either crippled or thrilled.
That is why a guy about to address a huge audience may feel the same complete paralysis as a lady standing in front of a speeding truck experiences. One of these instances is clearly imminent danger and death, whilst the other is in no way remotely close to harming.
So, why do we even respond similarly in the first place? Why do we fear? Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of this.
The secret to understanding this is in first understanding how the mind and body interact.
It is usually a feedback loop where the mind draws inputs from the body, interprets it, and relays the feedback to the body.
The body then responds to the output from the mind, and its response is relayed back to the mind, etc.
Hence, when the mind interprets a situation as dangerous, the body begins to respond with shivering and sweating. Interestingly, this same bodily response of sweating, and shaking, is exactly what we feel when we are super excited as well. Hence the “fear-excitement” conundrum.
This is why people are advised to constantly remind themselves that what they are feeling is not fear, but excitement when they are about to do something out of the usual.
Thankfully, if we let our excitement encapsulate us, and whilst remaining calm, it actually feels quite good.
When you are excited (or feeling an intense emotion – like actual fear) your body floods your system with hormones to ready you for action (i.e. fight or flight response).
The hormones include:
This makes for a very interesting possibility because if there is a feel-good hormone in the mix, it only means that if we can curtail the secretion of the stress hormones (like cortisol), we would be left with only dopamine (the feel-good hormone).
The result is that you can easily get an instant “natural-high” from getting scared in a safe environment. And this is exactly what happens.
It is not strange to see people quickly go from screaming to laughing when seeing a horror movie, visiting a haunted house, or riding a roller coaster. It is absolutely insane, intense, and compels you to keep doing it over and over again.
Just like people who take cocaine, they seek stronger and more intense stuff than what you’ve just experienced. In fact, you can say fear is the formula for a natural high.
Furthermore, studies have shown that people with a specific personality trait – i.e. the Sensation-seeking trait – tend to have lower levels of anxiety-inducing hormones like adrenaline or cortisol, and higher levels of the feel-good hormones (dopamine).
The result is that when put in scary situations, those with the Sensation-seeking traits end up experiencing more pleasure than distress.
And, on top of all these, these Thrill-seekers (i.e. those with the Sensation-Seeking traits), due to their brain chemistry, end up being prone to boredom, which then further drives them away from the mundane things in life towards the stimulating extremes.
Consequently: They tend to perform better at high-risk sports, and occupations (including very stressful jobs like working as emergency room nurses or doctors, as well as joining the military). And they enjoy it.
Even when they return to the mundane, people who were able to face their fears (and laugh in spite of it) usually report feeling proud of themselves. It kind of pumps their self-esteem and ego.
That said, the major reason some people enjoy being scared is that their brains can quickly suppress the adrenaline and cortisol. This leaves them reeling over the dopamine like helpless addicts – and the 2017 horror movie ticket sales of over $730 million, only prove this point.
Some of us are scared of getting scared, while others are addicted to getting scared. Now which one are you?