Researcher fascinated with fear there are hints in classic horror movies that help us understand the brain, says lecturer

Heath Matheson has gore on the brain. Or make that the “cerebral GOREtex,” as one of his upcoming lectures jokingly calls it.

HALIFAX — Heath Matheson has gore on the brain. Or make that the “cerebral GOREtex,” as one of his upcoming lectures jokingly calls it.

His blog Goretical Stimulation is also an ode to his two great interests: science and scary movies.

The Dalhousie University PhD student — a psychology major who specializes in cognitive neuroscience — has plenty of brainy insights into horror and the brain.

But he’s found a fun way into such heady stuff.

When he isn’t researching things like “temporal integration limits of stereovision in reaching and grasping,” the 27-year-old might be musing on Wasp Woman or Red Mist or The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

But he says these and other horror flicks can be “wonderful springboards into … pretty complex discussions” about our real grey matter.

Plus it’s a fun way to bring science to the masses.

Matheson volunteers with Let’s Talk Science, a national group that tries to do just that. The group helped organize his March 22 presentation, “Stimulating the Cerebral GOREtex.”

The year-old blog is an extracurricular partnership with his girlfriend Nicole White, a former Dalhousie student who’s now at the University of Toronto.

But the idea behind it is the same: boil the brain down to basics that will grab even the most scientifically disinclined.

And what better way to tap into public interest than things that go bump in the night or fictional brains that become disembodied or severed heads that stay alive?

“The goal is just that,” says Matheson, in his psychology department office, a mini-brain ornament and brain-shaped stress balls nearby.

“In its design it’s kind of a pilot test to see if you can do science outreach by taking something that’s kind of quirky and fun and inherently interesting and tagging on lessons with that. And horror movies are good for this because, although they’re not everyone’s favourite, they are pretty popular.”

Matheson’s been fascinated by horror movies since he was five or six years old, watching Friday the 13th at a friend’s sleepover. He had a nightmare he still hasn’t forgotten.

“My parents had to be called and I was in tears,” he recalls with a laugh. “I was sleeping in a novel bed that I’d never been in. It was up against the wall and in the dream the main character (Jason) came through the wall and his arms grabbed me and pulled me through the wall.”

Frightening, yes. But fascinating too, so much so that Matheson estimates he’s watched hundreds of horror movies since.

And now they’re a recipe for some scary but scientifically sound schooling.

Take these facts, for instance: Researchers over the past 30 years have mapped out regions of the brain that produce fear. They’ve found that a structure called the amygdala, buried deep within the temporal lobe, actually plays an instrumental role in generating our feelings of fear.

But in Matheson’s hands, these facts become far more fun.

Did you know that the Vincent Price classic The Tingler, Matheson’s favourite, had a far more ominous theory?

“In the plot of the movie, Vincent Price plays a medical doctor who does research out of his home laboratory and he becomes suspicious that fear … is generated from a tiny, squid-like organism that lives in people’s spines, and when you get afraid, this organism grows and tenses your spine and this is why you feel tense and, unless you scream, it will grow and probably eventually kill you.

“And in the climax of the movie one of these things actually gets out and starts crawling around a movie theatre and terror ensues.”

Terror also sometimes ensues for evolutionary reasons.

Studies of chimpanzees, for instance, have shown genetic predispositions to certain threats, like snakes. So the brain seems to have adapted for survival.

Why folks line up for fear is still a bit mysterious.

But some believe it’s a safe way to face terror. You get the adrenaline rush and the thrill without the consequences.

“I think Stephen King once said that is why we like reading horror and watching horror because we get to test ourselves in the safety of a theatre or in our home,” says Matheson.

“And this actually has received some empirical support because it appears that having these visceral changes, these physiological changes associated with fear — being startled, feeling the tension that filmmakers try to build in a horror movie and then having it released but without any actual threat to us — are associated with feelings of reward.

“There is evidence that these are rewarding experiences and why that might be the case is unknown as far as I know.”

In the meantime, Matheson hopes to keep people thinking about these and other brain-related matters.

“I love talking about the brain and issues related to it and the study of it. And to do it in the context of something like this with movies is actually really a lot of fun and I do think it’s an effective way (of) making science, the science of psychology in particular, more accessible to people.”