Adrenaline is a substance that is released in the body of a person who is feeling a strong feeling, such as excitement, fear or anger. The adrenaline rush usually occurs when the body senses danger, the “Fight or Flight” moment. Some people, known as sensation-seekers, are adrenaline junkies. Psychologist Zuckerman defines sensation-seeking behavior as the pursuit of novel and intense experiences without regard for physical, social, legal or financial risk. Sensation-seeking is a general personality trait. And like any personality trait are more than 50 percent determined by heredity.
Extreme sports can be a natural fit for the adrenaline junkies. These activities include bungee jumping, rock climbing and auto racing – any activity that involves a significant level of danger. Some people find thrill through non-sports activities or jobs such as firefighting, police work, or the military. The higher sensation seekers may find the riskiness of theses careers part of the attraction.
The movie The Hurt Locker (2009) demonstrates the lure of adrenaline rush. The movie begins with this quotation from war correspondent Chris Hedges: We imagine war is tough. We know it puts great strain on soldiers. But is war a drug? The movie focuses on the guys whose daily job is to disarm the homemade bombs that have accounted for most U.S. casualties in Iraq. One in particular, the supremely resourceful staff sergeant played by Jeremy Renner, is addicted to the almost nonstop adrenaline rush and the opportunity to express his esoteric skill.
In the case of “runner’s high, (link is external)” running produces a flood of endorphins (a kind of internal morphine, that suppress pain) in the brain. For example, people who are injured in the heat of sports competition, or in battle, often don’t notice their injury until the action stops. The endorphins are associated with mood changes. It’s not unusual for a typical avid runner starts running regularly for a few miles and slowly increases to 10 to 15 miles to feel the satisfaction of a workout. They develop a sort of tolerance to high-intensity activities.
People who seek high- sensation experiences are more vulnerable to substance abuse. High sensation seekers tend to perceive more benefits and fewer risks in, for example, drinking than do low sensation seekers. Scientists have discovered some similarities between the brains of drug users and high sensation-seeking athletes. The connection comes down to the dopamine, a chemical associated with the brain’s pleasure reward system. High sensation-seekers may be over-stimulated by novel experiences because their brains release more dopamine during these events than those of low sensation-seekers. The feeling of pleasure and satisfaction leads to the sensation-seeker coming back for more. Because the sensory cues and actions that precede and occur with those pleasurable experiences are remembered.
Sensation-seeking trait may have been useful to early humans. Without risky experiences there would be little impetus for discovery. Goldburg writes that the great globe-trotting Christopher Columbus would have never embarked on his great voyage had he not been temperamentally dysphoric and had Prozac been available in those days. The need for novelty has made us who we are – intelligent, curious, and constantly seeking for next thing. The novelty-seeking behavior is a basic need, not a compulsive behavior. There is a thin line between normal and pathological behavior.
By Shahram Heshmat Ph.D