From Newsweek By Valerie Voon: It has been the most deadly summer for wingsuit flying to date. But what makes some people want to base jump off a cliff, binge drink to oblivion or hitchhike with strangers while others don’t even enjoy a rollercoaster ride? Is there such a thing as scaredy-cat gene or a daredevil brain structure? Or is our level of attraction to danger down to how protective our parents were?
Whether our weakness is extreme sports, speeding, drugs or other dangerous behaviours, it is typically a mix of risk and novelty that draw us in. What psychologists call “novelty seeking” is the preference for the unexpected or new. People with this trait are often impulsive and easily bored – but new experiences release a surge of pleasure chemicals in their brains. A rat or human with preferences for novelty will be more likely to do drugs and binge drink.
The concepts of risk and novelty are to some extent linked: a new stimulus is inherently more risky in that any associated consequence is unknown. However, we can dissociate these two in the laboratory.
It’s (always) about dopamine
Dopamine, used by neurons to transmit messages to other neurons, is often described as the brain’s “pleasure chemical.” Dopamine cells lie in the mid-brain, deep in the base of the brain, and send “projections” to brain regions where the dopamine molecule is released—such as those involved in the control of action, cognition and reward. Studies have shown that the dopamine system can be activated by rewarding experiences, such as eating, having sex or taking drugs.