The Science Behind Why You Love or Hate Scary Movies

In anticipation of Halloween, October is a month full of spooky festivities including scary movies. Gathering a group of friends to watch a horror movie is a fun holiday activity, but finding a movie that appeals to a broad range of people can be challenging.  After I watched The Taking of Deborah Logan with some friends, we were evenly split on the number of people who found the movie enjoyable or traumatizing. This made me wonder: why do some people love to be scared, while others hate it?

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Carefully edited movies can elicit similar patterns of brain activity among viewers.

Fortunately, scientists have investigated how watching movies affects our brains. There is even a name for this branch of studies: neurocinema. In these studies, viewers watch movies while being monitored by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Unlike traditional MRI, which generates anatomical images, fMRI measures activity by detecting changes in blood flow. Scientists can use fMRI to study brain activity changes in response to watching a movie because blood flow increases when neurons are activated. In a study by Hasson et al. the authors demonstrated that, compared to unstructured recordings, carefully edited movies can elicit similar patterns of brain activity and eye movement among a variety of viewers. However, horror movies are often carefully planned to shock and terrify so there must be more to people’s preferences than brain activity patterns.

There are multiple theories about why some people enjoy being scared more than others. Some theories suggest the individual differences may be attributed to brain chemistry. For example, fear-seekers may be more sensitive to the rewarding effects of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the flight-or-fight response. A similar, sensation-seeking theory suggests that scary movie enthusiasts enjoy the feelings of heightened stimulation.

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Scary movie scenes, common in Halloween movies, can help sensation-seekers compensate for hypoactivation during lower intensity stimulation.

To test the sensation-seeking theory, in a study performed by Straube et al., people answered a questionnaire to determine their level of sensation-seeking and then watched scary and neutral scenes from horror movies while being monitored by fMRI. Interestingly, sensation-seekers, or people with high sensation-seeking scores, had lower brain activation while watching neutral scenes. However, sensation seekers had higher brain activity while watching scary scenes than non-sensation seekers. This suggests that sensation-seekers might experience hypoactivation during lower intensity stimulation, such as neutral movie scenes and compensate by seeking more intense stimulation with scary scenes.

So, if you find yourself cringing in horror at the movie selections this Halloween, blame your brain. The good news is there are plenty of light-hearted Halloween options. I personally recommend Young Frankenstein.

Peer edited by Breanna Turman.

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AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program

Are you interested in learning the tools to communicate complex ideas to a general audience?  The AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program is a competitive 10 week program that places you with media organizations around the nation to give you the tools to make science news easy for the public to understand.  Fellows are placed with media professionals at radio and television stations, newspapers, and magazines where they work with host journalists to research, write, and report today’s science news.

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In the AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program learn how to communicate complex ideas to a general audience.

To be eligible for this fellowship you must be an advanced undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate level student in life, physical, health, engineering, computer, or social sciences or mathematics and related fields.

For more information and fellowship criteria visit the AAAS website.

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Like It or Not, Your Internet Trail is Inevitable

I love online shopping. On the Internet I can ponder over one pair of shoes a thousand times without any store clerk getting impatient. For that my mom isn’t quite comfortable with. She warns me about hackers stealing my identity from giving out my name, phone number, or home address. I always laugh at her paranoid personality and then brush it off. But honestly – she’s more correct than I’d like to admit.

Nowadays every step we take online is carefully monitored, traced and stored. All of this data is highly valued for advertisers to target potential customers, turning us into products. While separate parts of this data – gender, age, your likes and status updates, connections and club members – are worthless, once they are assembled and interpreted, the marketers can successfully paint a precise picture of you. With more than 2 billion monthly active users, a third of the world’s population, Facebook actively collaborates with affiliate data broker to create more efficient advertising channels. Last year, the Washington Post published on different 98 targeting options Facebook pulls from other companies to pinpoint the users’ identity. These numerous digital predictions which we give away on daily basis can not only be used to sell things, but even more importantly, to potentially sell a candidate. In case you’re wondering how to stop them from targeting you and to escape from the so-called “useful and relevant” advertisements, see what Facebook knows about you. Twitter is watching as well. Here’s to shut off Amazon figuring you out. Google, too, is built on serving advertisements.

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What does the Internet know about you? All the information you consume online is tracked cross sites.

The Chrome extension Data Selfie is created to dive deeper into how your Facebook activity is measured and interpreted. Based on the contents you looked at, clicked (through likes and links) and the time engagement in posts, the app categorizes you into personality profile groups using the machine learning algorithm Apply Magic Sauce developed by University of Cambridge. In terms of my Big 5 personality traits, I’m more conservative and competitive, and I’m more easily stressed than relaxed. It also classifies my Jungian personality type to ISTPs, Introverted Sensing Thinking Perceiving, who are suited to the field of engineering. It’s likely anyone who knows me would agree, to some extent. Given that these tools only scratch the surface of social network’s data curation, it’s disquieting to comprehend just how much information they have.

Even if you don’t have a social media profile, it doesn’t mean you are not out there. Simply log onto the Internet, you start leaving a larger digital footprint more than you think. Simulating what a website picks up, often times without ostensible consent, Webcay displays a cascade of data reported by your browser. Concerning the sensitive information browsers can monitor, Cooper Quintin, a security researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation told to The New York Times, “More than just being creepy, it’s a huge violation of privacy.”

We are being watched more than ever before, thanks to the relentless development of digital technology. While it’s possible to opt-out personalized advertising, changing data settings won’t remove you from advertisers’ audiences, as Twitter qualified. And even if you can trail data through apps and tools, you can’t reclaim all of your information because that’s something you agree to when you sign up for the services. What you can do is always be Internet aware as you fill out your personal details, interact with your News Feed, and browse the web.

Peer edited by Gabrielle Budziszewski.

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Burn Baby Burn! For the Longleaf Pines

The recent forest fires have been wreaking havoc across California since early October. In fact, destructive wildfires are a frequent occurrence in the dry, western state. Such fires are generally bad news as they cause destruction of property and affect air quality. However, are they always bad? Interestingly, the answer is no.

Wildfires can be an intricate part of a forest’s natural cycle, and may even help its survival. One such example lies in front of our eyes in the state of North Carolina, where the longleaf pine finds its home.

Longleaf pine forests across the Southeastern United States are one of the most diverse environmental systems in North America. At one point in time, they covered about ninety million acres of land which, unfortunately, has decreased to only about three million acres. Human development and exclusion of fires by human effort are largely responsible for this decline. Longleaf pines are adapted to fire cycles; preventing fires actually hurts the health of the forest. Native Americans realized this correlation and rarely intervened whenever lightning induced fires, which were common events in the Sandhills region, a major home of the longleaf pines located in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.When the early European settlers came over, they realized the potential of pine resin in shipbuilding. Very soon, North Carolina’s pine forests became a supply line of naval stores for the UK’s Royal Navy. These early settlers however still continued to burn fires like the natives and thereby contributed to the health of the ecosystem. It was only with growth in plantation forestry came an urge to desperately eliminate fires.

Photo taken by Manisit Das

Longleaf pines, in their sparkling green glory. Weymouth Woods, Southern Pines, NC

The Sandhills region is home to about a thousand different plant species, the dominant species being the longleaf pines. With their long needles, the pines produce a bright, shiny green canopy growing atop massively tall trunks.Additionally, the forests support a wide variety of animals amounting to 160 different species of birds, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, a large number of salamanders, toads, frogs, the hognose snakes, and fox squirrels, and many other species.  In the twentieth century, firefighting prevented the regeneration of longleaf pines, providing non-fire resistant species a competitive edge. That, coupled with increasing human settlement, reduced longleaf pine forest covers. In 1963, the remnants of the natural home of the longleaf pines were brought under the state parks system when Weymouth Woods was established. Since then, simulated prescribed fires are used systematically as a conservation tool to restore and maintain the longleaf pines.

An unexpected player in the conservation effort is the US military. The military base Fort Bragg, bordering the towns of Fayetteville and Southern Pines in North Carolina, is home to some of the world’s largest biodiversity reserves. The army recognizes that maintenance of the natural environment is crucial. The live ammunition exercises conducted by the military in this base already help protect many of the plant species, some of which are exclusive to Fort Bragg. If these rare plants are not preserved, most of the world’s populations of these species will be lost. Understanding the need of the hour, the military installation is taking one further step: in collaboration with the North Carolina Botanical Garden, they have launched an effort to reintroduce some of the plant species at risk into the Sandhills ecosystem.

Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, a North Carolina State Park in the Moore County around Fort Bragg, offers a great snapshot of the magnificent pine forests that once covered the southeastern United States. During my visit, I was surprised by the wide variety of wildlife I encountered within a short period along the sandy trails. This included a large number of dragonflies, skinks, a moccasin, and not to mention the diversity of plants that coexist in the Sandhills pine forests. If you are intrigued by the unique nature and ecology of the longleaf pines, their role in North Carolina’s history, or simply take pride in being a ‘Tar Heel’, I definitely recommend visiting this place. You will not be disappointed in this treasure trove of nature.

Peer edited by Caitlyn Molloy.

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