The physiology of thrill-seekers

The physiology of thrill-seekers
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Every person’s brain assesses unknown situations differently: Those with thinner sections of gray matter, for example, tend to perceive less of a threat and therefore seek greater thrills.

No matter what type of thrill a person is seeking, the reaction triggers an increase in testosterone. Vision narrows. Adrenaline shoots into the body, which increases heart rate. With the heart beating faster, we get more oxygen. The body redirects oxygen to the brain as fast as it can. The feeling often lasts less than 60 seconds, and the immediate aftermath is another flood of mood-boosting chemicals. This is what leads thrill-seekers to chase the process again and again.

“It has a biological basis and high heritability, which suggests that it’s coded in our genes and our nervous system,” says psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, Ph.D. Now a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, Zuckerman started studying the field in the 1960s.

“Our early ancestors survived on hunting and food gathering,” he explains. “Hunting was one of the early expressions of sensation-seeking, particularly when they began to hunt large mammals where there’s a high risk involved.” High-altitude climbing and wakeboarding today produce the same chemical reaction in the brain as fighting a woolly mammoth with a spear likely produced in 15,000 BC. Back then it was a matter of survival. In today’s exponentially safer world, it’s a matter of pleasure.

By the 1970s Zuckerman had created a personality survey that identifies four types of sensation seekers: people looking for adventure, people seeking new experiences, people looking for ways to lose inhibitions, and people susceptible to boredom. People looking for adventure are likely to pursue physical challenges such as skydiving or base-jumping. People seeking new experiences often visit exotic places or try unfamiliar foods. People seeking to lose inhibitions thrive on making social connections with new people, while people susceptible to boredom often crave novelty. Most people fall into multiple categories, Zuckerman showed, but the pay-off is the same. 

In addition to identifying the four subtypes, researchers also developed a “sensation-seeking scale.” High-sensation seekers spend their lives pursuing this fleeting feeling. Low-sensation seekers actively avoid thrills and new experiences. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of this scale, depending on the levels of certain chemicals in the brain and the degree to which we build up a tolerance to exhilaration.

This tolerance develops as brain and body begin to anticipate that we will survive whatever we have survived in the past, which deprives similar experiences of their thrill and demands a new and greater challenge to achieve the same sensation. Factors that influence an individual’s tolerance include the amount of white and grey matter in the brain and mutations in certain genes. Researchers suspect variations in dopamine receptors are another factor, but the research is preliminary.

No matter what type of thrill a person seeks, part of the pleasure comes from the simple act of concentrating fully on a single task, according to the work of Dr. Seymour Epstein, late professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts. “It makes you feel very alive to be so scared,” he told the New York Times. “When you react to something that demands your full attention so forcefully, all your senses engage.

“After you take the plunge there’s an immense relief and sense of well-being in facing a fear that doesn’t materialize,” he adds. That’s the payoff sensation that many describe as time standing still, a sensation that inspires thrill-seekers to keep coming back for more. 

For stories of sensation-seekers and more exploration of the science behind the thrill, read the full article.

This article was produced on behalf of Porsche by Atlantic Re:think, The Atlantic’s creative marketing group, and not by the Quartz editorial staff.