No logic in Escapologic

Dr Stacey Bedwell (Lecturer in Psychology, Birmingham City University) visits an adults-only 'escape room' in Nottingham.

Have you ever been so scared that your body froze despite your state of intense panic? Even when you knew that the experience wasn’t real, and nothing could harm you? I have, on a gloomy Saturday morning in March, at the UK’s only 'escape room' with an age 18 limit. 

Escape rooms are a fairly new craze, revolving around the idea of physical adventure. Dozens have popped up around the UK in recent years, each with its own unique theme. The common characteristic of an escape room is that you are locked in a room with a group of people, usually friends. The aim is to solve a series of puzzles, find clues, and escape the room within a set time limit. A room I visited in the past had the aim of escaping a science lab with an important substance; this one had the aim of escaping a serial killer’s lair before ‘the butcher’ found us. 

I drove to Nottingham with my husband and two friends. The half-hour car journey took us all through various stages of anticipation. By the time we arrived we were all feeling a little anxious but confident we would be fine… after all, we knew it wasn’t real. Surely you can’t get that scared of something that you know can’t hurt you? Foolish thinking, coming from someone who runs a mile at the sight of a slug. 

By the time the escape room started we were already one woman down. Frances, a trainee clinical psychologist (perhaps she used some prior knowledge to decide to remove herself from the situation) made the decision to watch the rest of us on the cameras outside. This turned out to give us a useful insight that most people don’t get. Interestingly, she was shocked at how calm and collected we all appeared throughout. Evidently we managed to hide our feelings of fear and anxiety pretty well.

With my neuroscientist hat on, I went into the butcher’s lair interested to see how the three of us would cope with trying to solve puzzles and make decisions when put under pressure and fear. Research shows that being placed under acute stress has an impact on risky decision-making (Buckert et al., 2014), and increased stress is known to be related to increased risk-taking (Preston et al., 2007; Starcke et al., 2008; Lighthall et al., 2009; van den Bos et al., 2009; Pabst et al., 2013c). Similarly, psychosocial stress is known to impact other high order executive functions (Scholz et al., 2009; Plessow et al., 2012). Fear is understood to influence our decision-making processes. When in a fearful state, we often overestimate the negative impact that the outcome of a particular decision will have on us. It is thought that experiencing anxiety interrupts prefrontal cortex circuitry via altering cortisol activity in the HPA axis, thus impacting high order cognitive processes like decision making (Park et al, 2016). With all this in mind, I was expecting us to find making decisions and solving puzzles very difficult within the butcher escape room.

Having done an escape room with the same group of people before, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to see how we worked differently in a more intense situation. Little did I know that as soon as the door shut behind us, I would be unable to even begin to think about the neurophysiological and cognitive processes taking place. All I could think about was surviving and getting out. I am not exaggerating when I refer to survival; it genuinely felt like I was in a life or death situation. Logically, obviously, we all understood that we wouldn’t die if the butcher got hold of us… what fascinates me is that the feeling of survival and immense fear was unshakeable. 

Our team of three managed to solve most of the puzzles and almost made it out. With only one more problem to solve, two of us made it until the end of our allotted time. One team member, Kane, was forced to be separated by the structure of the game. It was the isolation that got the better of him and resulted in him using our safe word, birthday, to get out. Of course, increased fear in such a situation is no surprise when we consider the psychology of groups and human attachment. We are a social species and generally feel a sense of security and safety when we are with other people.  

Not long after this, with seconds left in the game and the butcher coming across the dark room, chains dragging on the floor, it was 'time up' for the remaining two. It was at this point that I cowered behind my husband in a corner. I have never held onto his hand so tightly. It amazes me that I could feel such fear when I had voluntarily put myself in that situation and I was fully aware of my safety. 

I went into The Butcher escape room wanting to see how we managed with solving complex problems and making decisions under pressure and heightened emotion. What I came out questioning was how a group of fully aware adults could be so afraid in a completely fictional environment. It would have been interested to see if I would have managed to stay until the end had I not been with my husband, but with a friend or even a stranger. 

References

Buckert, M.m Schwieren, S., Kudielka, B.M. & Fiebach, C.J. (2014). Acute stress affects risk taking but not ambiguity aversion. Front. Neurosci. 2014. Doi: 10.3389/fnins.2014.00082 

Lighthall, N. R., Mather, M., and Gorlick, M. A. (2009). Acute stress increases sex differences in risk seeking in the balloon analogue risk task. PLoS ONE 4:e6002. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006002 

Pabst, S., Schoofs, D., Pawlikowski, M., Brand, M., and Wolf, O. T. (2013). Paradoxical effects of stress and an executive task on decisions under risk. Behav. Neurosci. 127, 369–379. doi: 10.1037/a0032334

Park, J., Wood, J., Bondi, C., Del Arco, A. & Moghaddam, B. (2016). Anxiety Evokes Hypofrontality and Disrupts Rule-Relevanr Encoding by Dorsomedial Prefrontal Cortex Neurons. J. Neurosci. 36 (11) 3322-3335.

Plessow, F., Kiesel, A., and Kirschbaum, C. (2012). The stressed prefrontal cortex and goal-directed behaviour: acute psychosocial stress impairs the flexible implementation of task goals. Exp. Brain Res. 216, 397–408. doi: 10.1007/s00221-011-2943-1

Preston, S. D., Buchanan, T. W., Stansfield, R. B., and Bechara, A. (2007). Effects of anticipatory stress on decision making in a gambling task. Behav. Neurosci. 121, 257–263. doi: 10.1037/0735-7044.121.2.257

Scholz, U., La Marca, R., Nater, U. M., Aberle, I., Ehlert, U., Hornung, R., et al. (2009). Go no-go performance under psychosocial stress: beneficial effects of implementation intentions. Neurobiol. Learn. Mem. 91, 89–92. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2008.09.002

Starcke, K., Wolf, O. T., Markowitsch, H. J., and Brand, M. (2008). Anticipatory stress influences decision making under explicit risk conditions. Behav. Neurosci. 122, 1352–1360. doi: 10.1037/a0013281

Van den Bos, R., Hartefeld, M., and Stoop, H. (2009). Stress and decision-making in humans: performance is related to cortisol reactivity, albeit differently in men and women. Psychoneuroendocrinology 34, 1449–1458. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2009.04.016

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