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Why Do People Scream When Scared

by Lyndon Langley
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Why Do People Scream When Scared

Why Do People Scream When Scared

Screaming may be one of the oldest forms of communication known to humans. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of human burials where bodies were laid out with their mouths wide open in what is now referred to as “death screams.” The practice was believed to help release trapped air during an individual’s final breath, thereby allowing them to pass on faster to the afterlife. In other cultures, screaming has been used by hunters or warriors to alert nearby members of their tribe of imminent danger. And while it may seem odd to us today that anyone would actually scream for no apparent reason — at least not in public — research indicates this type of behavior happens quite often.
A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined why people are prone to screaming when they’re scared. Researchers found that when people get startled, they emit a loud sound which travels directly into the brain’s auditory cortex, located just above the ears. This area then transmits the noise via two pathways to different parts of the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, including the amygdala. One pathway leads directly to the amygdala; the second pathway sends the signal first to the motor cortex, which controls movement, before transmitting the information to the amygdala.
Scientists believe that the scream functions primarily as a defensive mechanism designed to keep us focused on a situation that requires our immediate attention. Research also shows that screaming can serve as a form of social interaction between individuals who live in groups, helping to warn others when someone needs assistance or attention.
But how exactly does the brain process a scream? Is there any sort of meaning behind this primal act? Why do some people scream louder than others? How come some people don’t ever seem bothered by sudden noises like thunderstorms or fireworks? To learn more about the physiology of screaming, read the next page.
The Science Behind Screams

One way scientists have tried to understand the function of screams is to conduct experiments on animals. For example, researchers studied rats in a laboratory setting to see if they could determine whether they were distressed by certain sounds. They placed the rodents inside cages equipped with speakers that emitted either high frequency tones or white noise. Each animal was exposed to both types of stimuli for several minutes each day over the course of three weeks. Afterward, the animals were observed for signs of stress such as increased heart rates or trembling. Results showed that although the animals didn’t exhibit differences in vocalization patterns upon hearing the sounds, they did show increased levels of anxiety and agitation after being exposed to the higher frequencies versus the white noise.
Other studies have shown that when monkeys hear particular kinds of sounds, they become agitated or frightened. It appears that certain animals respond best to specific types of sounds. But even among primates, there aren’t universal responses to all sounds. Studies conducted on rhesus monkeys revealed that these creatures became upset when exposed to sounds consisting of low frequency chirping noises or long duration vowels. On the other hand, when animals heard higher pitched short bursts or consonant vowel combinations (such as trrreee) they exhibited no distress response whatsoever. Scientists surmised that the combination of pitch and rhythmicity made the sounds less threatening to the monkeys, because the higher frequency bursts resembled bird calls. As a result, the monkeys weren’t bothered nearly as much as those that had heard the lower frequency sounds.
Another interesting aspect of screams is that they tend to vary depending on the person experiencing them. Some people scream loudly without any external stimulus. Others experience panic attacks and feel faint when confronted with frightening situations. There are also many people who are so accustomed to having frequent nightmares that they hardly notice them anymore. These observations suggest that the amount of pain associated with various experiences varies greatly for everyone. What’s more, researchers have found that people who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) tend to react differently to fearful stimuli than people who haven’t experienced trauma. Those with PTSD are more sensitive to stimuli that remind them of past traumas, whereas those without PTSD have trouble processing new threats.
So, what causes those scary scenarios to occur in the first place? Read the following pages to find out.
What Causes Fear?
Fear is something most of us encounter every day, yet few of us really know how it works physiologically. We know that it involves the amygdala, but what happens once the message arrives there? Are there any mechanisms involved?
According to Dr. Joseph LeDoux, professor of neuroscience at New York University, fear is triggered by the amygdala through a series of steps. First, a sensory input enters the brain. Then that input triggers neurons in the cerebral cortex to send signals to the amygdala. Next, the amygdala interprets the incoming data and decides if it’s dangerous enough to require action. If yes, the amygdaloid nucleus issues instructions to the hippocampus, which then relays the information to the entire brain, affecting areas throughout the nervous system, especially the hypothalamus, reticular formation and periaqueductal gray matter. Finally, the entire brain is affected due to the activation of regions such as the thalamus and frontal lobe. The end result is a change in mood, thought and emotion.
LeDoux believes that the key element that distinguishes fear from other emotions, such as happiness, is the fact that fear occurs automatically and involuntarily, unlike joy, which he says can be controlled voluntarily. So, while you might think you’re happy because you chose to enjoy yourself, your reaction will differ from someone else’s simply because you decided to be happy rather than afraid.
For some people, fear isn’t a problem. Many of us have developed skills to deal with everyday fears and phobias. However, for those who struggle with extreme fear, it can cause severe problems in work, relationships, school and general life satisfaction. For example, sufferers of agrophobia (fear of open spaces), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed places) and acrophobia (the fear of heights) avoid going outside, using elevators and traveling on airplanes because these activities trigger intense negative reactions. Social phobia is another common phobia that affects millions of Americans. People with this condition tend to sweat profusely, experience chest pains and break out in hives whenever they’re around large crowds or uncomfortable conversations. While medications and psychotherapy exist to treat phobias, sufferers sometimes need specialized treatment programs.

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