A Halloween Special: Why Are We Scared of the Brain?

Yes, that’s right, it is nearly Halloween! It looks like there won’t be any trick or treating this year. But that’s ok, because I’m still recovering from the fact that I was never allowed to go trick or treating as a kid! Last week, as I was walking around my local supermarket eyeing up all of the Halloween decorations and sweets (when you could buy more than just essentials) and something really struck me. There were quite a few brains! Brains, brains, everywhere and this got me thinking, why do we associate the brain with Halloween? Is the brain really that scary, or is this encouraging some dangerous, sinister and unhelpful stereotypes?

With Halloween on the horizon, I wanted to explore why we see so many brains around the time of Halloween. Is the brain really that scary or is the association with Halloween and the brain an unhelpful stereotype?

Why do we feel scared?

Feeling scared is an emotional response that is often driven by something in the environment. The brain then processes this information and causes the body to react. Feeling scared is an emotional response that has evolved in humans to protect us from danger. The fight or flight response was necessary when cave people were running away from hungry predators to ensure that they weren’t eaten by lions. But today the threats we face are less likely to be physical and more likely to be internal or stimulated by our own thoughts. The stress and anxiety caused from work, looking after dependents and I probably shouldn’t mention… a global pandemic! The thoughts we have around being scared, stressed or anxious are perfectly normal, based on evolution, but the problem comes when they are stimulated too often. If responses that used to be activated every now and again, are now continually activated by a range of more modern triggers, this can lead to chronic stress, anxiety and fear and that is not good for anyone!

So, what actually happens in the brain when we feel scared? When you are scared a region deep within the brain called the amygdala is activated. Once activated the amygdala produces a neurotransmitter called glutamate which in turn activates another part of the brain, the hypothalamus. It is the activation of the hypothalamus which triggers our automatic fight or flight response. Our heart rate increases to pump blood around our bodies, our breathing rate increases to flood the body with oxygen and we are all set to either fight the threat or flee the situation and get out of there!

Well, that is how the brain creates and controls our feelings of being scared, but why is it that we associate the brain with Halloween?

The brain in life and death

The brain has vital functions in maintaining life. If there is no longer any activity within the brain stem, the part of the brain which controls our most essential life functions such as; maintaining our breathing, heart rate and blood pressure, someone is considered brain dead. That means that without life support machines, the person would not be able to support their own vital bodily functions.

In some traditions Halloween is thought to be the time of year where the distance between this life and the next is closest and contact with ghosts, ghouls, spirits and the afterlife is most likely. So, I can’t help but think that the unique association between the brain and its role in life and death has something to do with why we associate the brain with Halloween.

The horrible history of the brain

The spooky suggestions of the brain are not exclusively associated with the end of life. Many of the scary associations can be attributed to the functions of the brain during life. I feel incredibly fortunate to live in a time where many people are more open and honest about their mental health. Although I acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to be done in this area and sadly, this positive and open view on mental health hasn’t always been the case. If we look back at the history of how people with brain diseases and disorders have been treated, it is not only scary, it is absolutely terrifying! In the not too distant time of ‘mental’ and ‘lunatic’ asylums, it was common to hear reports of people being forcibly locked up, isolated from their loved ones and held against their will. Although services are very different today, the stigma around conditions associated with the brain and the horrible history of these asylums, sadly still haunts and drives some of today’s thinking around being scared of the brain.

I think the main reason why we associate the brain with Halloween is because of what happens when the brain goes wrong. The brain controls so many important things, many of which are incredibly personal to us. So if the brain doesn’t function correctly, that can be incredibly scary. Scary for the person involved, scary for friends, family and loved ones too. But perhaps the scariest thing is that, at the moment, there are very few effective treatments for diseases and disorders which affect the brain. Diagnoses of brain diseases are scary because often, there is very little that can be done about them.

Don’t be scared of the brain!

The brain is the organ which gives us some of our most unique and personal features; our personality, our memory and our mood, so don’t be scared of it! Through research, we know more about the brain than we ever have, but of all of the bodily organs, it’s probably the brain that we still know the least about. The fact that there is still so much to discover about the brain might be one of the many reasons why we feel scared of it – but we shouldn’t!

There’s no doubt that many people still find the brain incredibly scary. I can tell from the number of posts that pop up on my social media pages the brain is still unfortunately still strongly associated with Halloween. But I don’t think it is the brain itself that many associate with Halloween. I think the link between the brain and Halloween comes down to history, a lack of understanding of what happens during brain disease and because at the moment there are very few effective therapies for conditions which impact the brain.

Please don’t be scared of the brain, it is fascinating. Yes, there are things that make us feel uncomfortable, upset or scared about the brain, but don’t let those things feed dangerous historical stereotypes.

So I have a Halloween challenge for you. The next time you see a brain or any sort of mental illness, brain disease or disorder associated with Halloween, please challenge it. It is not helpful to have these horrible stereotypes reinforced every year. Rather than being scared about what we don’t know about the brain, let’s put our energies into finding out more about it and empowering ourselves with knowledge, understanding and kindness.