Deliberately scaring ourselves can calm the brain, leading to a “recalibration” of our emotions

GettyImages-1023185208.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Among the many paradoxes of human nature is this: while many of us spend great time and energy trying to avoid negative emotions, like fear and disgust, there are others who, in an apparent act of emotional masochism, pay good money deliberately seeking out those same unpleasant feelings. Like the visitors to the Basement immersive theatre attraction at the ScareHouse in Pittsburgh, who spend $31 to “enjoy” being hooded, mildly electrocuted, stabbed (in a simulated fashion), and locked in a coffin, among other delights.

A team of researchers, led by Margee Kerr at the University of Pittsburgh, believe they may have resolved the paradox, although they caution that their findings are exploratory. For their new paper in Emotion, they set up a temporary EEG (electroencephalography) lab in a closet in the Basement attraction and 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. Taken together these effects could be indicative of a beneficial recalibration of their emotions – after you have been scared witless, the mundane travails of life are a breeze.

The researchers successfully recruited 262 volunteers who had already purchased tickets to enter the Basement at Pittsburgh’s ScareHouse. They asked them to fill out psychology questionnaires before and after the experience. And for around 80 of them, the researchers also 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.

Overall, the participants reported being in a more positive emotional state after the horror experience than before – that is, more wonderful and less awful. Those volunteers who were more stressed, tired or bored beforehand showed the greatest emotional benefits, and they tended to rate the horror experience as more intense and thrilling. Another finding was that fewer people reported feeling anxious after the Basement visit than before (challenging the received wisdom that fear breeds anxiety, and supporting the idea that it is anticipation that fuels anxiety, and the resolution of that anticipation fosters relief). Also, fewer people felt tired after the horror experience, indicative of an energising effect.

A major caveat to this research is that it’s based not on the effects any scary experience, but on a deliberately self-inflicted bout of horror – what the researchers call VANE or a Voluntary Arousing Negative Experience.  This seems key because it establishes the context for the fright experience and it’s telling that it was the volunteers who felt happier before their horror visit who were more likely to say afterwards that they felt they’d challenged their fears and learned something about themselves (in turn, people who felt they’d benefited in these ways were also more likely to rate the horror experience as thrilling, intense, uncomfortable, revolting, and scary).

One interpretation of these subjective effects is that they reflect a kind of recalibration of the emotions, which results in feeling better, similar to how we can recalibrate our physical senses. For instance, if your house feels cold, then if you go and stand outside in the snow in shirt-sleeves, your house will feel pleasantly warm when you come back inside. This may be how fun-scary experiences work for some people – after an episode of intense, controlled horror, the return to normal life feels much more pleasant.

This recalibration account appeared to be supported by the readings of the participants’ brain activity, which were dialled down after the horror experience, similar to the documented effects of mindfulness meditation on brain activity. Looking at specific brain wave frequencies, the researchers observed decreased gamma and theta reactivity in volunteers after they had visited the horror Basement, which could suggest “less engaged processing of environmental stressors”, they said.

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

Overall, Kerr and her team said that the appeal of intense, voluntary 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.”

Though they said their new findings certainly need replicating (the exploratory nature of the research meant there were many statistical comparisons which increases the risk of apparently meaningful patterns arising by chance), the researchers also suggested they could have some interesting clinical implications.

In the therapeutic context, the closest parallel to voluntarily scaring oneself is exposure therapy, in which the client is gradually exposed to the source of 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. Conversely, for client groups who are struggling with a lack of emotion and feeling, such as can occur in depression, voluntary scary-fun experiences might offer a way to boost a person’s energy and arousal.

“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.

Voluntary arousing negative experiences (VANE): Why we like to be scared

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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