High roller coaster carries people on a narrow rail.


Some folks just don’t make sense to others, eating fugu or cave diving when the mortal threat is plain to see and easy to avoid; but that’s what makes thrills interesting.

We seem to share many of the same brain mechanisms (research here) for generating emotion, though it’s far from certain that it’s a universal set of emotions. Yet our thrills come as individualistic responses.

As Robert Benchley said, there are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who do not. Some researchers divide us into two thrill-related camps of sensation-seekers and everyone else, exhibiting—or not—a putative reward deficiency syndrome, though the sensation-seekers themselves can be subdivided further and Zuckerman in fact developed different scales for measuring differences within the construct. Others see us ranged along a trait dimension sharing more or less of the need to seek novelty.

While it is easy to divide the population into those who BASE jump and those who do not, thrills defy easy dichotomies. Name your thrill: Whether it’s ASMR, blood sports, music, sex, magic, lawbreakingHalloween, finding crystals and fungi, or going barefoot, you will not share it with everyone.

Today, the emotions are widely considered to support decision-making, and we suppose that thrills support risky decisions. Where a bad decision may be fatal, and when a threat is real and unavoidable, thrills may be greater.

So a thrill is not a Babinski reflex, observable and warning of pathology in a few adults and absent in most of us. It is not even something that is just exaggerated in the risk-defying few, like a Babinski reflex in a ticklish person.

Yet the research is limited mostly to the example of people who seem to enjoy fear. Bearing in mind that thrills may clearly occur with fear or without it, and that no one enjoys panic and terror, the people who are labeled sensation-seekers are an interesting group who may tell us something about ourselves.

Risk-taking and sensation-seeking were considered together by Zuckerman and have remained linked in current articles by other authors. Distinguishing the terms will not be a focus of interest here.

Man tosses young girl into the air.

BIO: It’s possible that an increased cortisol level at the time of the fear led sensation-seekers to interpret it as pleasurable. A small spurt of a stress hormone from the adrenal cortex (corticosterone in rats, cortisol in humans) may switch the amygdala from generating fear to generating attraction at the moment of risk-taking. Alternatively, and more psychologically, a cognitive evaluation may accomplish the same result, or people might inherit a tendency toward sensation-seeking as an endophenotype!

(When you can’t find the genes that influence a behavior (discussed informally here) you can’t call the behavior a phenotype of those genes, so social scientists get away with calling it an endophenotype. It’s common to pay for using fishy concepts by using five-syllable words. Think of Freud and countertransference.)

The so-called reward deficiency syndrome rests heavily upon the neurotransmitter dopamine as a source of thrills in people who require dramatic risks to achieve thrills. There may be systematic synaptic differences, too, but we should probably avoid recourse to dopamine explanations without some detail to restrict the argument. Dopamine is so widely distributed in the brain and participates in so many functions that it suffers now from overuse.

Sensation-seeking may well have evolved, but the details of it in humans are mostly unknown. The problem with risk-taking is that the risk often implies an early death. However, as long as the risk-taker copulates before doing the risky deed, reproductive success could be enhanced–particularly if risk-takers as a group are more attractive than couch potatoes.

PSYCHO: Apparently there are folks who enjoy fear and seek it out. They may differ in personality from couch potatoes. Such proclivities are often regarded as stable traits, but you can also think of it as acquired. Inherited or acquired, it tends to decline with age, except for the risk of trusting others. That abides.

The trait of sensation-seeking can be measured with tests like the Zuckerman scale, which you can find in short and long forms. There’s also the BART test and the DOSPERT scale. The Farley Type T scale is already being used to analyze the risky behavior of politicians!  Some folks are clearly exhilarated where others would be terrified.

(Some have pointed out that the trait may not be adaptive. Others have expressed skepticism that risk-taking appears as a single trait and have argued instead that the situation is likely to be responsible.)

Risky behavior can be healthy and irresistible or unhealthy (more there) and sometimes both. The unhealthy kind tends to occur more in people with antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. Even the healthy kind can make you wonder sometimes, though I think we can do without the Freudian death wish metaphor.

Young people seem to have an unparalleled appetite for risk. Alexander the Great, Joan of Arc, and even King Tut all made their marks while they were teenagers. Pony Express riders were relative seniors at an average age of 20.

This is useful to think about because risk is a fundamental dimension of making decisions, and teenagers are often blind to risk.

The transition from rashness to prudence is largely a matter of brain development, and this has become a hot topic. Fascinating talks by Sarah-Jane Blakemore, Jay Giedd, and Adriana Galván go into this more deeply than I’ll take time for.

Developing an adult brain is a leap. Folks in their bent and toothless twenties don’t stop caving and climbing (or firewalking) but the reasons change. They’re different from the outset, actually: Boys take risks because of girls, but girls don’t take risks for boys so much.)

SOCIAL: Sensation-seeking is sensitive to social context. While men will take risks in skateboarding contests, they take more if women are in the audience. In intimate relationships, in love, the risk-taking involves a tradeoff between gains and losses from the decision to trust others and other social investments.

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