This is your brain on horror movies

old woman
Credit: Insidious

When we watch horror movies, our brains are hard at work, with lots of interconnected cross-talk between different regions to anticipate perceived threats and prepare to respond accordingly. This enhances our excitement while watching, according to scientists at the University of Turku in Finland. Researchers used an MRI to map the neural activity of subjects while the subjects watched horror movies.

The study focused on two types of fear: that creeping sense of foreboding in a spooky setting, with a growing sense that something is not quite right, and the instinctive jolting response we have to an unexpected sudden appearance of a monster or other threat (a jump scare). The team found that during the former scenarios, there are marked increases in brain activity in terms of visual and auditory perception. In the sudden shock scenarios, there was heightened brain activity in regions involved in processing emotion, evaluating threats, and making decisions, the better to respond rapidly to any perceived threats.

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“My biggest surprise was just how global the fear response is,” said [co-author Matthew] Hudson. “There’s constant information transfer between all of these systems. It makes sense that the whole brain is responsive to a potential threat, at the expense of anything else.”

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