Horror films a cause of stress? Not half as much as the queue at the chipshop afterwards.
Acute stress, like the kind brought on by watching violent movies, changes the way the human brain functions, researchers report.
It's well-understood that urgently stressful situations sharpen our senses, create a state of fearful arousal, strengthen our memories of stressful experiences and impair our capacity for slow deliberation. Animal studies have revealed a chain of neurochemical responses triggered by acute stress.
Now, Erno Hermans and colleagues have investigated the human brain's response this type of stress. They conducted an experiment in which volunteers watched clips from movies that were either very violent or not violent. The researchers analyzed the volunteers' brain activity via the imaging technology known as BOLD-fMRI and also sampled their saliva to test for stress-induced compounds.
Volunteers who watched the violent episodes showed an increase in responsiveness and interconnectivity within a network of brain areas involved in attention, alertness and the neuroendocrine system. The researchers also examined the relative roles of two key stress-related hormones and found that noradrenaline, but not cortisol, appears to drive this network reorganization.