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Halloween Frights Can Have Scary Good Benefits, Neuroscientist Says

Oct. 30, 2015

Dr. Christa McIntyre

Dr. Christa McIntyre, associate professor of neuroscience in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, said fear can help people stay away from danger, but its neurological effect can attract people, as well.

Halloween often is marked with scary movies, gory costumes and haunted houses. According to a UT Dallas researcher, such events provide an outlet for the release of pent-up fears while at the same time helping individuals feel stronger and sharper.

Dr. Christa McIntyre, associate professor of neuroscience in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, said fear can help people stay away from danger, but its neurological effect can attract people, as well.

“Some people intentionally put themselves into situations where they will experience fear, such as haunted houses, horror movies and roller coasters,” McIntyre said. 

“There are a number of theories about why they do this. Perhaps it’s because we feel powerful when we experience the fight-or-flight response. We’re stronger and sharper, thanks to the adrenalin streaming through our veins. Maybe it’s because we’re rewarded by surviving the fear without negative consequences. It makes us feel invincible,” she said. 

McIntyre studies the neurobiology of learning and memory, particularly in fear, traumatic events and stress. She said people generally have an initial response and then a delayed response to scary things. 

“We scream, and then we laugh at ourselves,” she said. “The first response is guided by a primitive system in the brain that includes the amygdala and the brainstem. This no-nonsense system acts quickly, which is good because it can get us out of danger in a hurry. The second system is more deliberate and less reflexive. This system includes neocortical areas in the front of the brain, and it evaluates the situation and confirms or denies whether it is a safe situation. 

With the right balance of activity in these systems, we can enjoy a good adrenaline rush without the worry of personal harm.

Dr. Christa McIntyre,
associate professor of neuroscience in the School
of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

“With the right balance of activity in these systems, we can enjoy a good adrenaline rush without the worry of personal harm.” 

McIntyre noted that adolescents often are most likely to see horror movies and visit haunted houses. 

“This is a developmental stage where risk-taking may be a good thing. Kids have to take a big risk to leave the home where they’ve been comfortable and protected,” she said. 

Another benefit of going through a scary event is that it can strengthen relationships, according to McIntyre. 

“We find safety in numbers, so we reach out to those who are close to us. Acute stress enhances a memory that is shared with friends,” she said. 

While controlled scary situations can provide some benefits, McIntyre said fear sometimes can get in the way. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 19 million people in the U.S. suffer from mental illnesses that involve irrational fear responses. 

“Fear keeps us away from danger, but it also can interfere with taking necessary risks, and it can be totally debilitating in cases of anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” she said. 

McIntyre is part of a UT Dallas research team that is using a grant of up to $6.4 million to study a potential new therapy for individuals who suffer from PTSD. 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant will enable the UT Dallas scientists to explore a PTSD treatment that uses targeted plasticity therapy. Targeted plasticity therapy uses vagus nerve stimulation during exposure therapy to reduce the fear response.

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