The Impact of Fireworks on the Brain

Transcript of Neuro Nugget Video:

With the Fourth of July right around the corner, the skies will be ablaze with exploding art. Our souls will swell with splendor as we watch thousands of fireworks burst in the night, shooting up like hot comets then fanning out into brilliant umbrellas of twinkling light. There’s no question that we humans love fireworks. Some of us have risked serious burns to the face and hands attempting to set them off and awe our friends. But what about fireworks makes them so appealing and euphoric? The answer might not be what you expect.

The reason we like fireworks so much is because they scare us. Like lightning, the bright flashes warn us something, like the booming clap of thunder or the hollow pop of a firework is about to happen. This activates the amygdala, a little ball of nerves in the brain that detects fear. After the lights have stimulated the anticipation of a threat, the resounding crack of the firework confirms this perception in our brains. In response, our reward centers release a surge of dopamine, a chemical that regulates pleasure. But why would something that we fear generate happiness? Well, unlike the unbridled terror of the unknown, fireworks-induced fear is controlled.

After seeing these light-up shows over and over again, our brains anticipate the bang that comes right after the flashes of light. People seem to be excited by the anticipation of a slightly scary experience. Fireworks repeatedly set up this expectation. Each flash generates the anticipation of a bang, and that satisfaction seems to be what’s exciting about the display. We’re also exposed to injections of color that we don’t normally see. “Fireworks genuinely synthesize new wavelengths of color. Basically chemists have hijacked the system when it comes to fireworks, they can cook up colors that are outside the spectrum.” We can thank little metal salts for these neuron-stimulating hues. As these compounds heat up and eventually go ka-boom, the changes in color produce a dazzling effect, an ooh at the initial blazing beam and an aah as the glittering tails sort of dissolve in the dark.

These surprising bursts of color also explain why fireworks look super lame on TV or in an Instagram post, and why we’d rather risk injury to get up close and personal to the action. Screens on computers and televisions are made up of red, green, and blue pixels that our brain sort of scrambles up, kind of like an artist mixing paint on a palette. If we mix red and green paint, we’d get yellow, but yellow originally was never there. Because pixels also vary in brightness, our brains can create all sorts of color combinations based off of the primary red-green-blue three, but those colors don’t actually exist on the screen itself.

But when we watch fireworks “live,” we’re witnessing an authentic representation of color very different from the red-blue-green combos that we’re accustomed to. This unexpectedness of color is also why fireworks are so captivating; even if we wanted to, we’re hardwired not to look away from the light. The rapid fire pops and bright, new pigments force us to freeze as the brain investigates the sudden influx of sound and color. So as you watch the skies ignite this Fourth of July, keep in mind that your brain’s having a little celebration all on its own. Want to learn more about your brain and how it functions? Call and schedule your brain map today.

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Posted on

June 28, 2023