Why did I love this book?
Read the introduction to Chapter 4 in Happy Potter and the Goblet of Fire and you will have a perfect description of the brain’s stress response. Spoiler alert – Harry finds himself in a scary maze, with monsters lurking in dark corners at every curve, and he needs to think quickly to get himself out. He starts sweating, his heart beats fast, he feels anxious. A maze is a classic trigger of the brain’s stress response. Mazes have been used for over one hundred years to study the anxiolytic effect of drugs in rats and mice, because mazes trigger the brain’s stress response so effectively. A drug that reduces anxiety will cause the rat or mouse to navigate the maze without signs of stress and will reduce anxiety in people.
Mazes are stressful because there are many places where decisions need to be made quickly, without the benefit of environmental cues. Being lost in unfamiliar places is stressful, and your stress response needs to turn on to get you out. It gives you the ability to fight or flee from danger – focused attention, vigilance, are all needed for survival. That is your stress response working for you.
I once found myself in a real maze, close to closing time: an eight-foot-high boxwood hedge maze in the gardens of King Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace outside London, England. I couldn’t find my way out and feared that I would be stuck there all night. I couldn’t see where I was going, sounds were muffled, and dusk was falling. I panicked and froze – that was my stress response working against me. But when I heard a familiar voice on the other side of the hedge – my cousin’s voice, who happened to be in the maze too, my nerves calmed, and he led me out. Although I don’t know for sure, I would bet that J.K. Rowlings was describing Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace maze.