The Thrill of Fear

Rabbi Azriel Hauptman

We spend a lot of time and resources protecting ourselves from fearful occurrences. We wear seat belts, alarm our homes, take vaccines, set up Hatzalah organizations, etc. Real life is scary and prudence would dictate taking whatever measures we can to avoid frightening situations. Then, why do people actively seek out terrifying experiences such as roller coasters and scary plays?

Let us analyze this a little deeper. Imagine a family with two children, Moshe and Menachem. One beautiful summer day, the family visited an amusement park, which was famous for its upside-down multi-loop roller coaster. Moshe anticipated the ride with excitement, but Menachem strongly refused to go on the ride. This common scenario raises the question, why did the same exact situation elicit two very different reactions from Moshe and Menachem? 

The answer lies in understanding the psychology of roller coasters. We have discussed many times in this column the fact that logical thought and the fear response are located in different parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex in the front of the brain controls logical thought and the amygdala and neighboring sections in the back of the brain controls the fear response. For this reason, the knowledge that a seemingly scary activity is not actually dangerous will not necessarily extinguish the fear response since these two parts of your brain do not always communicate with each other.

When Moshe and Menachem stood by the roller coaster, both of their brains were sending them mixed messages. Their prefrontal cortex told them that hundreds of thousands of people have ridden this roller coaster before and no one was injured, but their amygdala was sounding the alarm since it looked very scary. Moshe was able to ignore his amygdala’s false alarm and use the knowledge and understanding of his prefrontal cortex to board the roller coaster without hesitation, but Menachem was unable to block out the fear response that was imparted by his amygdala. Now we understand why, unlike Menachem, Moshe was not afraid of the roller coaster. What we still do not understand is why Moshe was so excited and enthusiastic to ride this iconic attraction.

This requires delving a little bit deeper into the fear reaction. When we are frightened, our brains activate the fight-or-flight system. Many changes occur in our bodies in an instant, including directing the blood to the muscles, heart, brain, and internal organs in order to give us some extra strength in a threatening situation. These changes come about because of a rush of adrenaline and a release of endorphins and dopamine. We feel energized and, on a certain level, euphoric. 

Thus, the roller coaster triggers two distinct feelings. On the one hand, you experience fear. But on the other hand, you are “getting high” on the endorphins and dopamine. Basically, these are drug-induced reactions! You did not ingest these substances, but rather they were produced by the greatest pharmacy in the world – our very own bodies. Does it now surprise you that people will travel for hours and then stand in line for another two hours, just to experience a forty-five second roller coaster ride?

Anything in life that is both frightening and very safe has the potential to draw our interest and attention as we anticipate the arousal and excitement that we feel when faced with “safe” danger. However, there are individuals who have a predisposition to anxiety who have brains that have a hard time differentiating between a fear that is real and one that is make-believe.

It is this tendency for anxiety that is at the heart of many phobias. Certain phobias can interfere with regular functioning, such as fear of elevators or bridges. There are forms of therapy that are very effective in helping individuals manage their phobias. However, if your only phobia is “coasterphobia”, then you can probably get through life without much difficulty by simply avoiding roller coasters. However, if you are very eager to ride a roller coaster, there is a cognitive-behavior therapy program called “The Coasterphobia Stress Management Program” that was designed to treat this relatively common issue. I kid you not.

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