Deliberately Scaring Yourself Can Calm the Brain

A new brainwave study suggests people who willingly submit to a frightening experience, are rewarded with a boost to their mood and energy, accompanied by a reduction in their neural reactivity.

While most people try to avoid negative emotions, fear and disgust, others pay good money to deliberately seek out those same unpleasant feelings, to go skydiving or to a scary movie.

Researchers, led by Margee Kerr, believe they may have discovered the reason behind this paradox. In the study, the researchers found evidence that for many people who willingly submit themselves to an intensely frightening experience, the reward is a boost to their mood and energy, accompanied by a reduction in their neural reactivity. These effects could indicate a re-calibrating of emotions beneficial to the individual.

262 volunteers purchased tickets to enter a haunted house. The volunteers filled out questionnaires before and after. Around 80 of them performed successful pre- and post-basement-visit scans of their brain activity during a range of tasks, including looking at unpleasant pictures, erotic pictures, and ruminating.

Participants reported being more emotionally positive after the horror experience than before. Volunteers who felt more negative before showed the greatest benefits, and they tended to rate the experience as more intense and thrilling. Another finding was that fewer people reported feeling anxious after the haunted house than before and fewer people felt tired.

A caveat of this research is that it’s based on a deliberately self-inflicted bout of horror – what researchers call a Voluntary Arousing Negative Experience or VANE.  This establishes the context for the experience. Volunteers who felt happier before their experience were more likely to say they challenged their fears and learned something about themselves afterwards. After an episode of intense, controlled horror, the return to normal life feels much more pleasant.

This recalibration is supported by the participants’ brain activity, which was dialled down after the experience, similar to the effects of mindfulness meditation on brain activity. Looking at specific brain wave frequencies, researchers found decreased gamma and theta reactivity after the experience, which could suggest “less engaged processing of environmental stressors,” researchers said.

Those volunteers who felt wonderful after the horror visit showed reduced gamma waves when asked to ruminate, which “could reflect … perhaps not [being] as compelled by thoughts that previously served to increase their stress.”

Researchers said the appeal of voluntary, intense horror experiences is similar to that of thrilling sports: “Within the context of safety and control, guests allow themselves to ‘lean in’ to the fear-inducing experience and reach higher levels of psychological and undefended physiological arousal than in day-to-day experiences.”

These new findings need replicating, but it could have some interesting clinical implications.

In a therapeutic context, voluntarily scaring yourself is similar to exposure therapy, where the client is gradually exposed to their phobia. The researchers said it could be useful to explore how adding a fun or thrilling framing to exposure therapy might make it a more pleasant and rewarding experience.

“This study could suggest that inducing high arousal via exposure to negative stimuli may be a substrate for a generation of interventions that do not work to proximally decrease, but rather to increase, arousal in people whose goal is to increase positive affect and feel ‘wonderful,’” the researchers concluded.



Photo:“Scary monster thing I found in a dumpster. #dumpsterdiving #trash #thrownaway” by Bradley Gordon is licensed under CC BY 2.0