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Risk-Takers: You Aren’t Crazy, It’s Your Brain

April 17, 2009 06:40 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Researchers are learning more about the brains of extreme risk-takers, those whose seemingly insane pursuits are not deterred by the threat of danger or global economic instability.

Reckless or Enlightened?

What makes one person cringe in fear makes another’s heart race with excitement—but why? Outside Magazine’s latest Adventure Issue delves into the brains of the world’s most extreme risk-takers, fearless alternative athletes like Ted Davenport, who thinks nothing of hurling his body off a 300-foot cliff. Despite the recession, which has stymied many peoples’ ability or will to travel, spend money or take risks, some adventurers cannot be slowed down.
According to Outside, scientists have determined that the proclivity for reckless behavior is in our genes, and may be responsible for human evolution. Those who were “genetically inclined to seek out the better-tasting protein, the greener pastures, the prettier mates from unfamiliar territory” have propelled us forward.

But now, neuroscientists are making even more headway into the science of risk. The use of “a new generation of questionnaires” and heightened technology that allows a more telling glimpse into the brain—“radioactive imaging and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI),” according to Outside—has offered further insight into not only “risky decision making” but also our “thirst for adventure.”

Tests are beginning to show that “high-risk takers” like Davenport may be more impulsive, achieve more intense feelings of pleasure from risky experiences and have little regard for harm. Although their lifestyles may seem ridiculous to others, many extreme risk-takers have achieved a coveted sense of purpose by finding “an activity that gives them great pleasure, that improves their quality of life, and that keeps them in a good mood and out of trouble,” Outside reported.
The ability to achieve a heightened mood is a phenomenon also observed in mountain climbers, leading to speculation of “a link between the experience of wild places and a strong spiritual awareness,” according to planetFear.

Even “climbers and adventurers of the past” described euphoric, supernatural emotions on mountain treks, and in some cases reported having visions. Climber Edward Whymper, for example, “saw brocken spectres (enlarged projections of a person's shadow on the cloud)” after his four companions were killed during a climb in 1865. And wilderness writer and adventurer Peter Matthiessen described a “sense of the transformative power of the high mountain environment” in his work, despite not being a professional climber, planetFear reported.

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Related Topic: The recession and adventure travel

Wealthy adventure-seekers have not let the recession thwart their high-energy travels. Pete Lemon of Great Britain, for example, refused to put off his ski trip to the South Pole, despite the hefty price tag. He told Reuters, “this is a once in a lifetime chance to go to Antarctica.”

Adventure tourism operators told Reuters that their clients’ wealth is not the only reason they’ve continued taking risky treks. The “once in a lifetime” aspect and the fact that many “have striven for years to achieve” such feats also factor in.

A survey by the Adventure Travel Trade Association suggested that the adventure travel industry “will be less affected [by the recession] than mainstream travel,” and more than one fifth of survey respondents predicted their bookings would increase in 2009.

Reference: Adventure Travel Web Guide


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