Thrill-Seeking: What Parts of Your Brain Are Involved?

Fear should keep you from danger—but will it?

Posted Feb 14, 2014

(c)jgroup
Source: (c)jgroup

Has watching the Olympics on TV or hearing stores of the crazy antics of college students at spring break ever led you to wonder why some folks take on amazingly frightening challenges?

Fear generally is an unpleasant feeling. It's an intensified version of the unpleasant feeling therapists usually label anxiety. Fear feels bad in order to cause you to move away, quickly, from dangerous situations, or at least to figure out a way to neutralize the threat. Fear that we might cause loved ones to leave us often keeps us behaving well in relationships, so it even has important love implications.  

The amygdala is a small almond-shaped bundle of neurons in the middle of your brain that quickly assesses potential danger and then triggers immediate flight, flight, freeze or submissive reactions. Animals have that same little brain organ.  For them and for humans, the quick messages that the amygdala sends forth mostly keep us safely out of trouble.

In addition, human beings have frontal lobes that bring the ability to assess danger into verbal information-processing and judgment realms. Those "white matter" parts of the brain that lie under our forehead and the top of our skull make us all the more smart about what we decide to do and not to do.  

So why do so many folks, from daring Olympian snowboarders, skiers, and skaters to motorcyclists and car racers, not to mention college students at the beach for spring break, find themselves drawn to risk and danger time and time again?

Enter brain chemicals with names like adrenaline, endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. As blogger Loretta Breuning explains, adrenaline, endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine are "happy chemicals," that is, substances that stimulate positive and even euphoric feelings. Dopamine comes up when we are attempting to accomplish a challenge. Adrenaline readies us for action when we see danger. Endorphins keep up our endurance. And dopamine, adrenaline, serotonin, and endorphines, because they make us feel so good, can be highly addictive. The more we get them, the more we want more. So there we go, seeking out the thrilling challenges that trigger these chemicals to surge. 

That's the good news, and the bad news.  

If you find you are enjoying doing somewhat dangerous activities, fine. Go for it. At the same time if your frontal cortex is saying to you, "Too dangerous," pay attention. Maybe even turn up the volume. Then next time you amydala sends out "Danger ahead!"messages, your better judgment will say, "No, I don't think so. I'd rather stay safe."  

A little less fun for the moment may give you a much longer life with fewer injuries and therefore more good feelings in the long run. And at the same time, going for it gets the gold! Your choice...

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Psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD has authored The Power of Two and PowerOfTwoMarriage.com to help couples convert from arguing, which endangers relationships, to being able to talk comfortably and safely about sensitive issues.