The Spooky Neuroscience Behind Fear and Zombies

Halloween is the one time of year that we seek out scary situations. Some people decorate their houses like a creepy lab or cemetery, others go to haunted houses to see classic monsters and gory scenarios. We dress up like witches, devils, vampires, zombies, and other creatures of the night. What causes us to seek out these frightful situations? Why are we afraid of what we see? What happens when we look at these scary creatures with a scientific lens?

These spooky questions inspired the latest Halloween themed Taste of Science, formerly Pint of Science, a series of science lectures over beers at Ryan’s Daughter bar in Manhattan. Nathan H. Lents, Ph.D., discussed fear and Erin Coffey, Ph.D., examined the science behind a monster that many of us fear, zombies.

Coffey, a former neuroscientist and current educator, began her presentation with an examination of the Haitian tradition of zombies. The word zombie, as well as multiple theories about what could “create” a zombie, originated in Haiti. Theories include the neurotoxin tetrodotoxin, found in pufferfish, or the drug Datura, which comes from a flower. Ingestion of either substance creates a delirious zombie-like state.

She also looked at the possibility that zombies have fallen victim to a disease, which she referred to as “Predatory Somnambulant Degenerative Disorder,” and whether that disease could be neurodegenerative. While the symptoms – such as loss of motor coordination, memory, speech, and visual acuity – reflected real prion diseases like Alzheimer’s, the transformation was much too rapid. For this reason, Coffey believed “Predatory Somnambulant Degenerative Disorder” would more likely be caused by a virus, such as rabies.

Lents, a professor of molecular biology at John Jay College, gave a brief introduction to the neuroscience of fear to help answer the question of why we fear zombies. Fear is controlled by an ancient part of the brain, the amygdala. It is thought to have helped us evolve, Lents said, by aiding us in the avoidance of harm. Even though we may be able to use reason to explain why not to be afraid of something, the amygdala still produces a fear response. So if, for example, we see a zombie, our amygdala produces a fear response to keep us safe from becoming zombies ourselves, even though we know it is only fiction.

When asked why people seek out fear, especially around Halloween, Lents explained that fear itself does not feel good, but that directly after a fear response our brain is flooded with catecholamines, such as adrenaline and dopamine, which produce a feeling of contentment. “It’s all neurochemistry,” he said. Lents also pointed out that short term stress can relieve long term stress by releasing these neurochemicals.

So, a visit to a haunted house or a scary movie could help you forget about your bigger problems, if only for a while. Sounds like a good excuse to turn on your favorite zombie movie!

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– Ali Chunovic

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