While neuroscience studies are finding differences in the brains of people who are excited by risky behaviour, thrillseekers say anyone can turn fear into a challenge. By Sophia Auld.

The neuroscience of thrillseeking

Skydiving instructor Glenn Stutt, on top, with a tandem diver.
Skydiving instructor Glenn Stutt, on top, with a tandem diver.
Credit: Supplied

When Glenn Stutt jumped from the aeroplane, he wasn’t aware that his life literally hung in the balance. The metal link connecting the parachute to his body had come undone, meaning the chute could have disconnected. “When I landed, that’s when I realised how serious it was,” he says. “I felt pretty sick in my stomach for the rest of the day.”  

But this encounter didn’t dampen Stutt’s passion for skydiving. After giving up motocross racing at the age of 17, he had a “big gap in [his] life of something fun to do”. A neighbour later introduced him to skydiving. At 42 years old, he has now completed nearly 18,000 jumps and, despite his penchant for high-adrenaline sports, says, “I don’t really consider myself a thrillseeker. I just enjoy doing what I do.”

What is it that makes people like Stutt leap out of aeroplanes, while others baulk at riding a rollercoaster? Are risk-takers braver, crazier, or perhaps not as smart as those of us who get our thrills vicariously?

Neuroscience may have the answer. Researchers delving into the brains of thrillseekers are discovering differences that could account for our varying levels of sensation-seeking.

According to Associate Professor Muireann Irish, of Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre, we are all hardwired to feel fear for protection against perceived threats. However, our perception of whether experiences are fearful or thrilling varies, and is dependent on context. “Given that similar chemicals underlie the fear response and other positive states such as happiness and excitement,” Irish says, “the high arousal evoked by fearful experiences may also be experienced by some people in a positive or rewarding way.”

For Stutt, the fear of skydiving was quickly outweighed by the thrill of “flying your body through the air” and of mastering a new skill. “Being in freefall at 14,000 feet is a pretty unique experience,” he says. “It’s an addictive feeling.” It was so rewarding that he trained as an instructor, and now owns a skydiving business in Western Australia.

Neuroscience research is suggesting that “high sensation-seekers” share common personality traits, including disinhibition and susceptibility to boredom, Irish says. They tend to crave new experiences, even if they carry a risk. “For example, studies have suggested that high sensation-seekers are more likely to engage in drug abuse, risky sexual behaviours or excessive gambling.”

It remains unclear whether this tendency has an anatomical as well as a chemical basis. On the chemical side, one of the critical neurotransmitters for reward processing is dopamine. When something is perceived as rewarding, a burst of dopamine activity is initiated, causing a positive emotional state. “Individuals with a blunted dopamine response may be motivated to seek out experiences that activate dopamine release,” she says. “This could be in the form of a variety of behaviours including extreme sport, gambling or other risky behaviours.”

The anatomical basis is less well understood.

A 2009 study conducted at the University of Kentucky’s department of anatomy and neurobiology used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare brain responses to intensely arousing and emotional images between high and low sensation-seekers. The high sensation-seekers had stronger responses in brain regions associated with arousal and reinforcement. In contrast, low sensation-seekers showed more activation in regions involved in emotional regulation. The authors concluded that: “Individuals high in sensation-seeking not only are strongly activated by exciting, thrilling, and potentially dangerous activities, but also may be less likely than other people to inhibit or appropriately regulate that activation.”

Another study, conducted in 2007 at the same university, examined the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with memory, learning and assessment of new environments. Researchers found that high sensation-seekers had enlarged grey matter in the front right portion of the hippocampus.

Further studies indicate that extreme sporters get used to novel stimuli faster than non-extremists, Irish says, suggesting that the perception of an experience as novel is much shorter-lived in high sensation-seekers.

Clinical psychologist Grant Brecht, of Insight Elite Performance Psychology, says extreme sports tend to attract a particular personality type. Brecht works with elite sports teams and athletes, and notes that people who crave excitement also have “the ability to be well planned and very careful. It’s more seeking to push themselves to their limit, than it is to get a thrill for a thrill’s sake.”

Brecht believes that our propensity for risk-taking is a combination of nature and nurture. This was probably the case for Andrew Fox – the son of renowned shark-attack survivor and conservationist Rodney Fox – who has done thousands of shark dives since he was a young boy.

The 52-year-old now runs a shark expeditions business with his father. While their great white shark dives are done from cages, Andrew Fox has dived with various potentially dangerous species in the wild, including makos, bronze whalers and sevengill sharks. He believes that sharks “tap into some sort of primal fear we’ve got of being eaten alive. Anything we usually watch on TV is about danger or drama or revenge or attack. They’re the sorts of things that make us alive. That’s why people are fascinated by the sharks.”

While many people come on his trips with trepidation, expecting to see a “ferocious apex predator”, Fox argues that crossing the road is actually more dangerous. In 50 years of dive trips, no one has needed a single stitch from a shark-related incident. In contrast, passengers have cut their legs on rocks, banged their heads on the boat and twisted their backs.  

For Fox, it comes down to assessing and managing risk, noting that the chance of being attacked by a shark is low. “At least with big sharks you know that they’re probably not going to bite you. I’ve done literally thousands of dives right next to [researchers who were] tagging, biopsying, identifying, filming and photographing white sharks up seriously close.” He has also learnt to identify signs of predatory behaviour and adjust his own accordingly. “Sometimes … they do consider you as either a threat or a meal. You get that intuition coming through and you put up your guard a lot more.”

Learning about sharks is key to overcoming fear of them, Fox says. This idea started with his father, who “realised that it’s not smart to kill this animal that’s really not that dangerous once you learn about [it]. He got more of a kick out of overcoming his fear just through getting to know the sharks and taking people out filming them.”

Skydiver Glenn Stutt agrees that education helps people manage fear. “All that knowledge you’re gaining helps fear dissipate,” he says. “Then you pretty quickly change from being worried about dying to having performance anxiety about not achieving what you’re trying to achieve on a particular jump.”

Stutt and Fox also agree that their activities attract a wide variety of people. Stutt has skydived with people from their late teens to their 70s. Fox’s youngest shark-diver was five and the oldest 88. They range from “middle-aged women who … want to stretch out their ordinary life and come out for an adventure of their lifetime” to those who “like doing something they can brag about … on social media”.

Nonetheless, sensation-seeking has been linked to age and gender. Males tend to score higher on sensation-seeking scales than females, and increasing age is correlated with a decline in sensation-seeking, Muireann Irish says.

And while it seems that few people “chicken out” once they’ve committed to a risky situation – Stutt has only had one person renege in 17,000 jumps, and at least 90 per cent of Fox’s boat passengers get in the cage – what about those of us who don’t get that far?

Irish argues that because fear is a protective mechanism against perceived threat, being risk-averse isn’t always a bad thing. However, for low sensation-seekers looking to leap out of their comfort zones, reducing the novelty and unpredictability of the environment may help. For example, you might try indoor rock-climbing first before heading out to a 50-metre cliff face.

Grant Brecht says that a “growth mindset” – being willing to have a go, persevere and learn from inevitable failure – is crucial for overcoming fear. “People who have a growth mindset see failure as just a part of life … You need to stand up and give yourself a pat on the back for having a go, and then soldier on and learn from it.”

He also says we can learn to feel more relaxed in a situation by breathing deeply, smiling and using positive self-talk. “It’s how we prepare ourselves cognitively to tackle those things in life that we might feel wimpish about.” From a neuroscience perspective, talking and acting courageously develops different pathways in the brain, he says. “Suddenly the things that were once fearful … go from being a problem to being a motivating challenge. That’s when you’re likely to achieve at the level that you’re capable of.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 14, 2018 as "Neuro sensation".

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