Your Brain on Shark Week: Fight, Flight, and Alpha Mode

Great White Shark Great White Shark, photo courtesy of Terry Gross, (CC BY-SA 3.0)Aww yeah! It’s Shark Week!

Discovery Channel is rolling out the goods with hours upon hours of shows dedicated to the most efficient killing machines in the water. That means roughly 2.6 million of us will be tuning in each night this week to watch the gilled and finned killers do their things.

But why all of the excitement for a TV show? It’s not like we all get to wrap ourselves in a wetsuit and plunge right into a shark cage in Great White-infested waters (although that would be awesome). 

Because the TV show preys on our fears just like sharks prey on potential food in bloodied water.

Dr. Rob Dobrenski, a clinical psychologist in New York City, says that from a purely psychological perspective, humans are designed to seek out all of the emotions in the spectrum, even those that might be considered negative, such as sadness or fear.  

“We want to feel it all, and watching horror movies or thrilling shows that stimulate the amygdala bring out a fear that we really enjoy,” he says. “You know how when some people feel down they listen to depressing music, to get even more into the emotion? I think that's our natural urge to feel every emotion the mind has at its disposal. In that way, I think it's healthy.”

Dr. Dobrenski states that TV and movies can help people overcome irrational fears. Being attacked by a shark is mostly an irrational fear considering there are only about 50 to 70 confirmed shark attacks each year, with only between five and 15 of them being fatal.

That doesn’t make sharks any less terrifying. Here are some facts:

  • They are evolutionary predators who are constantly shedding teeth. The largest order of sharks, carcharhiniformes (which include the hammerhead shark), can go through more than 35,000 teeth in a lifetime. Some of them are even serrated, making your incisors look like stubby pieces of chalk.
  • A Great White shark is a two-ton, 18-foot stealthy killing machine, with 200 two-inch long teeth.
  • The whale shark can grow to be 60 feet long. (Luckily, he only eats plankton though.)
  • The shortfin mako shark has been clocked at swimming 20 mph.

Still, only a fraction of the population watching Shark Week are even near waters where sharks call home, so why the obsession with sharks?

Because there’s nothing scarier than an effective killer that no human could ever match.

That, and parts of your brain don’t know it’s just a TV show. 

“Something like a shark attack in a real life situation can be very dangerous to you as a person. Our bodies will respond automatically,” Dr. Mason Turner, Chief of Psychiatry at Kaiser-Permanente San Francisco, says. “When you see something like that on television, we don’t have time to realize it’s on TV. It’s so realistic that you don’t know what’s going on.”

Once the limbic system of the brain—the part that deals with fear and humans’ “fight or flight” response—gets going, it’s not easy to turn off. Watching a week of gruesome shark footage puts your brain into what’s known as its “alpha mode.” Here, your brain is in its most receptive state because you are relaxed, allowing alpha waves to dominate your thought process. These alpha waves are believed to be essential to our imagination, higher in creative people, and stronger in children.

Basically, those rapidly flickering images put you into a hypnotic, but still functioning, state.

So, as you receive images and sounds of a shark leaping out to tear a seal into bits, your brain feels like it’s happening right in front of you. The violence stimulates your limbic system and dumps the appropriate hormones (like adrenaline!) into your bloodstream as if it were real. Your cerebral cortex—the rational part of the brain—can’t react quick enough to tell you that you’re safe at home, sitting on your couch, Dr. Turner says.

Still, years of conditioning watching TV lets you know that one of those sharks isn’t going to leap out of your TV so your heart doesn’t leap out of your chest.

Even with all those outside factors, there’s a big thrill factor going on inside our brains that gets us excited.

“Most of us like that thrill, that upsurge of hormones,” Dr. Turner says. “It gets us excited. It entertains us. It’s not just the adrenaline junkies—most of us like that.”

People who have been through traumatic events in their lives may not want that excitement. The trauma doesn’t have to be shark-related; any upsurge of hormones could mimic those felt during a previous trauma. In essence, your brain and body might not be able to tell the difference, Dr. Turner says. 

Also, as home entertainment technology advances with bigger screens and higher resolutions, our brains’ ability to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not could be shrinking. 

“From the thrill perspective, it’s a good thing,” Dr. Turner says. “From the people who want to avoid those situations, they should probably turn the TV off during that part.”

So, if you can’t sleep during Shark Week, remember one last fun fact: sharks don’t sleep either. 

Happy Shark Week. 

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