Thrills and the Brain


On a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, four women are walking down a city street. They notice a figure lurking in the doorway of an apartment entrance. His face is gray, with dried blood near his mouth and dark black circles under his eyes. “Zombie!” they yell as they run away, the zombie in pursuit.

This might sound like the beginning of a horror movie, but it’s something my friends and I experienced last month. I’m very much into zombie horror movies, so when I saw an event posted online called the “Zombie Run,” I quickly signed up to be a “runner” (as opposed to, you know, a zombie), meaning I’d be chased through a three-mile course while dodging the undead, who would attempt to remove the ribbons around my waist—sort of like post-apocalyptic flag football.

According to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Scary Movies and Real-Life Risks,” neuroscientists have found differences in the brains of people who, like me, love the excitement of being thrilled. In the article, David Zald, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Vanderbilt University says, “Humans have a unique situation where we will seek out things that scare us. We’ve got to ask, what could make this exposure rewarding?”

The article mentions Zald’s 2008 study in which he found that the participants who avoided thrills had more autoreceptors for dopamine, which “act like built-in brakes for the pleasure chemical,” while the thrill-seekers had few of these receptors. A different study found that people with a certain variation to a particular gene relating to anxiety are more easily disturbed by frightening images.

The research of Joseph LeDoux, a Dana Alliance member and director for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety in New York, is also mentioned in the article. The conclusion: “fear prompts humans to run first and evaluate the threat later.”

I can watch the Sci-Fi or Chiller channel all day and not once be scared by what I see. I find it interesting to watch the horror scenarios play out and see if the main character will run from the enemy or fight. I also like to imagine what I would do in such a situation, which is why the Zombie Run was so appealing to me.

My friends and I were headed toward the end of the course, ribbons intact, when we were ambushed by some runners-turned-zombies. Two of my friends sprinted in one direction, while my other friend and I hid behind a car. The coast looked clear and we made a break for the finish line when a zombie appeared on the corner of the street. My eyes got wide, I let out a scream (being the main character was clearly different from imagining what it would be like) and tried to dodge him, but he quickly snatched my ribbons. My friend suffered the same fate.

As for our two other friends who escaped, they were the first two to cross the finish line and ultimately crowned the Zombie Run winners. They ran first and evaluated the threat later.

–Blayne Jeffries

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