08/27/2012 08:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why We Love a Good Scare (and Game of Thrones )

One of the best parts of the HBO series Game of Thrones is how well the writing captures fear's many facets. In this scene, Brandon Stark, son of Ned Stark, is asking Old Nan for a scary story, prompting ominous talk of their world's dreadful long winters.

"Oh, my sweet summer child," says Old Nan, "What do you know of fear?

"Fear is for the winter, when the snows fall a hundred feet deep and the ice wind comes howling out of the north. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides its face for years at a time, and little children are born and live and die all in darkness.... Thousands of years ago, there came a night that lasted a generation. Kings froze to death in their castles, same as the shepherds in their huts, and women smothered their babies rather than see them starve.... So is this the kind of story that you like?"

Bran nods yes.

Like so many humans (especially teens), Brandon wants to be scared, which is a little odd when you think about it. Fear is a generally unpleasant emotion that can damage health in large doses and weaken performance. But in controlled environments, fear is sort of fun. Why?

This is a complicated question that I try to answer in detail in The Fear Project (now available for pre-order), but without getting into the weeds, here are a few basics.

Most of us like feeling awake, and when you strip it of its negative associations, fear is basically a stimulant. Just like caffeine, it's pleasant in small doses and can even improve athletic and cognitive performance.

As Dr. Joseph LeDoux told me recently, when we see, feel, or hear something scary, our sense organs route a message to an ancient part of our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala tells the body to shut down nonessential functions such as immunity, digestion, and sex drive, siphoning that extra energy to muscles we might need to survive. Part of this process also includes an adrenaline boost that speeds up heart rate. The amazing part about this completely unconscious response is that it's lightning fast, faster than the time it takes us to consciously think about it. That's why we jump and spill our popcorn when the murderer leaps out of the bushes. Consciously we know it's just a movie, but our fear response is faster than conscious thought. It had to be, to keep us alive in the wild, and it still has to be to keep us alive on the freeway.

So during a scary or suspenseful movie, we're constantly getting hit with these little energy shots of fear, but then our conscious mind catches up and reminds us it's just a movie. This ebb and flow of relaxation and fearful stimulation -- flux between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, if you want to get technical -- creates a nice cocktail of adrenaline and dopamine that makes the movie enjoyable.

Extreme sports aren't so different. When you launch off a cliff on the ski slopes, you get a quick, fearful energy boost looking over the edge, but when you land (hopefully) in three feet of fresh powder, unharmed, there's a sense of relief that keeps the fear response from mounting into panic and keeps the adrenaline at an enjoyable level. (In large doses, adrenaline can actually be dangerous to the body.)

Some of us, like Brandon Stark, like being scared more than others. The reason Brandon is lying in bed listening to stories is that he was daredevilishly climbing the walls of Winterfell when he was pushed off. Even after being paralyzed from the waist down, however, Brandon only yearns for adventure. This qualifies him as what psychologists often call a "high sensation-seeking personality." HSS personalities -- according to Dr. Marvin Zuckerman, who developed the sensation-seeking scale -- tend to get more pleasure out of the novel, scary, and often risky situations they get themselves into than the average person. One reason seems to be that their brains may actually be structured differently. Researchers have discovered that people who are novelty-seeking -- a trait very similar to sensation-seeking -- get a larger release of dopamine (a pleasurable neurochemical) than average when they encounter a new situation. Interestingly, this high sensation-seeking trait seems to be about 60 percent genetic, according to Zuckerman, and appropriately, Brandon's dad isn't one to shy away from a fight or an adventure, either. This is, in part, why the elder Stark is so revered, and it's precisely because bravery has been so needed during human evolution that Zuckerman says high sensation-seeking survived in the gene pool. As he wrote in 2000 in Psychology Today:

"Humans are a risk-taking species. Our ancestor Homo sapiens originated in East Africa, and within the relatively short span of 100,000 years or less spread over the entire globe. It turns out that explorativeness may be the key to the survival of the species."

Hunting, war, and seeking new sexual mates all required a tolerance for high risk, but attraction to risk is "most adaptive when it is in the middle range," Zuckerman notes. "Too much risk-taking leads to an early death; too little to stagnation." Brandon Stark may have stepped over the line in season one of Game of Thrones, but there is no black-and-white when it comes to risk exposure, and I have a feeling that season three will reveal that Brandon's high sensation-seeking has benefits, too.

For more by Jaimal Yogis, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.