We all take risks. Whether schussing down a snowy couloir or speaking in front of a group, we have all known the feeling of pushing our own envelope. Stepping into our fear can bring moments of great enlightenment. The thrilling edge between danger and suicide found in today’s surge of outdoor adventures has replaced religious asceticism as the way to transcendence.
Jumping out of airplanes and flying off cliffs is the new Nirvana.
Marvin Zuckerman, a psychology professor from University of Delaware, termed the phrase “sensation-seeker” for those that search for novelty and excitement. Chemicals in our brain govern our risk reward calculus. When we enjoy a thrill, our brains are flooded with dopamine, our own personal pleasure cocktail. Dopamine sits on our shoulder woohooing and heehawing while we walk the thin line of danger. Other chemicals, namely MAO monoamine oxidase, temper that enthusiasm. MAO gobbles up the dopamine sluicing through our brain, all the while whispering into our other ear, telling us to “watch out, this could be dangerous.”
Turns out, dopamine to MAO ratios differ in each of us. Risk-taking behavior is 60% determined by our genes, while the rest is shaped by our environment. Thrill seeking tends to run in the family. And yet, it too, can be learned.
I am fascinated by this slackline between risk and reward. As predicted by neuroscientists and psychologists, as I’ve gotten older, my tolerance for risk has diminished. Still, I score high on Zuckerman’s Sensation Seeking Scale. This test was developed to determine factors in all risk-takers, only one of which is thrill-seeking and adventure. But as we grow older, we develop more MAO, and that whispery voice warning us of risk grows stronger.
Find out where you stand on the scale. Just click on the image below to go to the test. Were you surprised by the results?