[Paleopsych] NYT: What's the Lure of the Edge?
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Mon Jun 20 18:42:42 UTC 2005
What's the Lure of the Edge?
By RICHARD A. FRIEDMAN, M.D.
DURING a vacation last winter, I took a zip-line canopy tour of the
Costa Rican rain forest. Strapped into a harness 100 feet above the
jungle floor, I was flying through the air, with the toucans and
parrots, attached to a steel cable strung between two platforms. I was
having far too much fun to think that this could be dangerous. At
first it was pretty thrilling, but by the 10th zip line I felt it was
losing its charge.
On the last and highest platform, a guy just in front of me began to
hyperventilate. Being a psychiatrist, I realized he was having a panic
attack. I got him to relax with some deep breathing and then asked him
whether he had had this problem before. "Oh, yes," he said. "I thought
this would be a way to conquer my fear of heights."
Why was he terrified by what was beginning to bore me? We were both
members of the sex that studies and more informal surveys indicate is
more drawn to thrill seeking (for better or worse - more men than
women have orbited the earth, while men are two to three more times
likely to be pathological gamblers). But this man and I seemed to be
on opposite ends of the thrill-seeking spectrum.
On an individual level, the difference seems to be hard-wired in our
brains, scientists have begun to discover. What is more surprising is
that thrill seeking appears to be enjoyed not just by an elite - or,
as some think, aberrant - bunch of people who put their lives at peril
for a jolt of excitement.
The focus of research on a relatively small, though dramatic, group of
unsavory characters like psychopaths and drug addicts can give the
impression that thrill is only for the mentally unbalanced. Far from
it. Thrill seeking in one form or another is so widespread that it has
practically become institutionalized in the culture. From reality TV
shows like "Fear Factor," shot through with danger and risk, to the
growing popularity of extreme sports, there is something to suit
The root of the thrill-seeking experience lies in an ancient neural
circuit buried deep inside the brain that is intimately involved in
pleasure, reward and novelty seeking. This system, which connects our
thinking cortex with our more primitive limbic emotional center, runs
on dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Many of life's greatest pleasures
feel good because, in the end, they cause the release of dopamine from
the brain's reward pathway. Sex, food and recreational drugs all flood
the brain with dopamine - and so does thrill seeking.
Like just about every other human attribute, there is great variation
in individual taste for novelty and thrill seeking, much of it rooted
in the brain. For example, Dr. Nora Volkow at the National Institute
on Drug Abuse has shown that response to euphoria-producing drugs is
related to the levels of brain dopamine receptors.
In one experiment, she gave normal male controls intravenous Ritalin,
which releases dopamine, and found that those who experienced the drug
as pleasant had significantly fewer dopamine receptors than
participants who reported unpleasant effects. Those with more dopamine
receptors at baseline are probably less likely to abuse drugs or seek
any thrill because their brains already have more dopamine activity to
start with. In fact, these guys are likely to be thrill-averse, like
that fellow I met on the zip line.
For the chronically underaroused, a simple bike ride or jog in the
park doesn't do the trick; it would take something more intense like
diving 50 feet into a gorge or snorting cocaine to provide them with
enough dopamine for them to feel excited.
An entire industry has emerged in the last decade to satisfy such
voracious appetites for thrills. Rich Hopkins, an inveterate surfer,
stuntman and extreme sportsman, is president of ThrillSeekers
Unlimited, a company he founded in 1992. Clients try anything from
skydiving, bungee jumping and paragliding to zip-line or stunt
driving. They will even give you the "fire burn," where you are set
safely on fire, like a real stuntman. "When we started, we had around
50 to 75 customers that first year," Mr. Hopkins said. "Now, we
routinely take out several hundred people in just one adventure."
Who are these thrill seekers? About 80 percent are men, Mr. Hopkins
said. But the big surprise is that some of the largest clients are
corporations and that many participants are men well into their 50's
and 60's. "Instead of a golf holiday, they are sending their employees
for an extreme sports adventure and they love it," Mr. Hopkins said.
Charles Edwards has been chasing tornadoes in Oklahoma ever since he
studied meteorology in college. "I've been obsessed with tornadoes for
the last 15 years," he said. "Every storm is completely different, and
you just get this adrenaline rush and try to get as close as possible
to them. I've seen houses getting blown apart and cows tossed aside.
Mr. Edwards was so hooked by the thrill of chasing storms that he
created his own company, Cloud 9 Tours, to support his habit, as he
called it. "We take people out during the tornado season here in
Oklahoma, from April through August. These guys come back again and
But what about thrill-averse guys? Can they learn to enjoy a little
more excitement? If so, would thrilling activity itself change their
neural circuitry to make them more like thrill lovers?
Probably not, judging from studies of Dr. Jerome Kagan at Harvard, who
has shown that certain temperamental traits you are born with are
pretty stable. Using M.R.I. brain scanning, Dr. Carl Schwartz at
Harvard recently found that these anxious adults showed greater
responses in the amygdala, a brain region that processes fearful and
threatening stimuli, to faces of strangers than to familiar faces. In
other words, people who like novelty have biologically different
brains than cautious folks, and no one knows if experience changes
Of course, the surge of dopamine that thrill seekers search out can
literally be addicting. The reason is that anything that activates our
reward system, whether it's a natural reinforcer like sex, food or a
thrilling act, is seen by the brain as something that should be
repeated - over and over. And despite how smart we think we are, our
brain can't really distinguish among the activating effects of drugs,
thrill or useful behaviors. Even worse, for some people, drugs and
thrill are more powerfully self-reinforcing than even food and sex. So
the very design of our brain that promotes survival also makes us
Alain Robert, a k a Spiderman, is known for climbing skyscrapers
without special equipment or a safety net. He recently climbed the
Taipei 101 Tower in Taiwan, which, standing at 1,670 feet, is the
world's tallest building. "The euphoria when I reach the summit maybe
lasts a few hours or days at the most, and then I have to have it
again," he said. "I enjoy the risk and to be in control of my fear and
have to do it again and again. I cannot stop climbing."
Not all men get their thrills in such physically spectacular ways as
Mr. Robert; some get it from their work.
James Cramer, a founder of TheStreet
.com and a financial commentator, used to manage a hedge fund. "I
craved the risk," he said. "I would come to work and if by midday I
hadn't made a serious bet, I'd be miserable. The bigger the bet, the
"I got such energy and felt so alive," he added, "I was ecstatic on a
For some, though, there may be more to thrill than only a dopamine
rush. "Guys like extreme sports not just because it's exciting, but
because it makes them feel accomplished and more self-confident," Mr.
John Bardes, a freshman at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., who
enjoys scaling 50-foot walls, echoed this. "The wall is a genuine test
of your ability and if your muscles can't make it, you fall. It's a
way of finding your limits and seeing how far you can push yourself."
Mr. Bardes, however, is not fearless. "At first I was nervous, and the
higher I went the more anxious I became," he said. "But I got over
that. Up there, I feel like I'm alone in my own world and it clears my
Thrill has a dark side, too. In the sexual arena, it can literally be
fatal. Men with a strong taste for sexual novelty in the form of
multiple partners are at high risk of both getting and spreading
H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases as they move from one
encounter to the next.
But few forms of thrill are as insidiously destructive as gambling.
Recently, scientists have peered into the brain while people are
playing a game that simulates gambling. Dr. Hans Breiter at Harvard
had subjects play a computer game of chance in which they either won
or lost money, and monitored their brain activity. He found that the
prospect of winning money activates the same dopamine reward pathway
in the brain as recreational drugs like cocaine do. No wonder gambling
is so compelling. This also helps explain why gamblers, like drug
addicts, often seem helpless to resist an impulse that brings intense
pleasure but can ruin their lives.
Curiously, winning the prize is not what seems to make gambling so
thrilling and addictive. Dr. David Zald at Vanderbilt University
measured dopamine release in a group of subjects who played a computer
game in two different conditions. In the first, subjects selected one
of four cards and knew they might win a $1 reward, but didn't know
when it might occur. In the second, subjects knew ahead that they were
guaranteed to win $1 with every fourth card.
Dr. Zald found a large increase in dopamine activity when winning was
unpredictable, but not when the subjects knew what was coming. The
implication is that gambling is powerfully addictive precisely because
the outcome is uncertain.
Believe it or not, thrill seeking is pretty much a modern phenomenon.
Our hominid ancestors did not bungee jump or do any of the silly
things that we do these days for thrill. Life back on the savannah was
exciting enough on its own, with ferocious predators and an overall
lack of amenities.
Nowadays, where the basics like food or a sexual partner are a mouse
click away, we don't really need our reward circuit for survival; we
are free to use it just for pleasure. (To determine your risk comfort
level, you can try a test adapted from the Zuckerman-Kuhlman
Personality Questionnaire at nytimes.com/menshealth.)
With few exceptions, like 9/11, modern life has become so safe and
controlled that you have to work at finding a little excitement. In
fact, one might predict that as life becomes more predictable, riskier
forms of excitement will emerge. Hang gliding off Mount Everest?
Antarctic triathlon? There's no telling what's next.
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