A Doctor Looks at Halloween
The Need for Fright
We used to take Halloween pretty seriously at our last house. The tombstones went out on the lawn, and the fuse box was rewired to flicker the house lights in response to the huge wattage of sound I blasted out of my balcony speakers. Considering we got about 300 children coming through, we weren’t overly generous with the candy, but we did give them a show. Now that we’ve moved to a less Halloween-conducive house, I am still seeking the perfect balance of effects and treats that will continue the tradition. Is it some dark, devilish side to us that makes us want to do this? No.
I think it’s that we enjoy stimulating the secretion of epinephrine from children’s adrenal glands. It’s also called adrenaline. It derives its name from the adrenal gland that makes it. Adrenaline has been intimately identified with our mammalian lineage as to figure in our survival as a species. It’s also been referred to as the a fight or flight hormone, because it prepares us to take a stand or run away from a threat. And it does this almost at the spinal level, because some threats come so quickly that the brain doesn’t have time to go to committee to take a vote.
Adrenaline is an amazing chemical. It’s a neurotransmitter which makes nerve cells fire off down the line in the types of nerves that respond to danger. It decreases the tone of the stomach while contracting all of our sphincters. We don’t want to worry about indigestion or incontinence while fighting or running away. It shunts most of the blood supply to our skeletal muscles, the ones we really want to count on in a pinch. It contracts the pilomotor muscles, causing our hair to stand on end, not as useful to us as it is to a frightened cat using this little trick to look bigger than it really is. It constricts our blood vessels to raise our blood pressure while increasing the strength and rate of our hearts in case we suddenly were faced by a physical challenge. It causes our pupils to dilate so that we can see better even in lower light. It raises blood sugar for quick energy, as well as increasing breakdown of fat for a backup. It relaxes bronchial muscles which will allow us to take in more air for more oxygen to supply the increase in blood flow to our muscles.
And it does all this simultaneously. We’re ready to fight. We’re ready for flight. We’re ready for anything from lions, bullies, rhinos, or spiders. When dozing on the Interstate, it’s adrenaline that wakes us up to peak alertness when we notice the police lights flashing in the rear view mirror.
The Doctor’s House
And this is where my house came in on Halloween. The kids came a knockin’ and the adrenaline started a flowin’. It was my job on All Hallows’ Eve to wring their little adrenal glands to affect a mass response. And as a doctor I often found myself asking, Why is it that the flow of a neurotransmitter, designed to negotiate life-threatening events, is fun?
I don’t know. Neither do any of my medical books. I’ve looked. But there has been some insight now that the science of neurology has made great progress in deciphering the code of emotional responses with fancy scans. And the combined emotional response of fear + thrill involves very ancient parts of the brain that were designed to respond at the most basic of levels. To fear something, react emotionally, but also know it’s a put-on would be quite a tour for any single nerve impulse. The reason we’re so successful as a species is because we don’t have a single impulse that makes the rounds, picking up pieces of information one piece at a time.
The genius behind the design of our mind is that several areas of the brain make up a consortium to handle this complex concept all at the same time. We’re running away as soon as we’re exposed to a fright, all the while laughing out loud yet feeling repulsed, but feeling reassured about our survival not only for the next minute but for the next ten years. We don’t see it that way of course—we see it as a hoot. We may flex our muscles, but we also flex our brains all of the time, especially with the paradoxical nature of the threats something like Halloween can pose.
But we all love it. It’s a part of growing up, from Halloween to roller coasters, from suspenseful movies to scary books. Really, it was designed to be used when we were about to be swallowed or clobbered or fried, but we love the feel of the stuff when we know we’re actually safe. In these times we seldom need to fear being pounced on by tigers, but it doesn’t hurt to lubricate the machine once in a while. Or once a year, even. I’ll be waiting. Mu-ha-ha-ha-ha…
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