Dare you read what happens in your brain to encourage death-defying pursuits that are so popular in and around Cape Town?!

By Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

Living in Cape Town means that we are lucky to have a playground of mountains, beaches and oceans to explore whenever the mood takes us!  

Popular peninsular pursuits include hikingclimbingparagliding and abseiling from the high exposure of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head or Devil’s Peak. But you can also stay lower to the ground or under the sea for other thrilling activities like deep-sea scuba divingsurfingmountain-biking , rollerblading or skateboarding.    

What do these pursuits all have in common?  People who have a compulsion for adventure and excitement – the definition of an adrenalin junkie – often follow such pursuits!  While the term adrenalin junkie is known in the scientific community, it is not yet a formal psychiatric definition, although if you consider yourself to be one, chances are you could have a form of addiction.  

But do the brains of adrenalin junkies differ from more sedentary folk, who might rather prefer to sit at home with a cup of tea and a book?  Let’s find out!

Neuroscientific research suggests that the brains of adrenalin junkies, who deliberately put themselves in danger, differ significantly, in terms of structure, function and in the levels of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) serotonin and dopamine circulating around the brain.  In a recent study of over 1000 people conducted by American neuroscientists, it was found that parts of the brain associated with risk evaluation and decision-making – the anterior cingulate cortex (in yellow in the picture) and the middle frontal gyrus (at the very front of the brain), were smaller in those who regularly seek adventure and excitement compared to those who do not. It must be noted however, that smaller does not necessarily hold a negative connotation. Nevertheless, some people we might regard as adrenalin junkies have a higher risk of substance use disorder (alcohol, drugs), especially in those who are younger (because the brain rewires to a greater extent in the young).  Differences in brain structure in these regions are also linked to changes in brain function, which might mean that adrenalin junkies feel the need to place themselves in greater perceived danger (often these activities are quite safe if followed correctly) in order to activate their decision-making and risk-evaluation functions – a bit like a person addicted to substances who cannot easily experience a natural high but needs more and more stimulation from a drug in order to function properly.  Adrenalin junkies also force themselves to exercise greater attentional control – which means that through repetition, one learns to control basic bodily responses linked to fight or flight (activated by adrenalin).  This can include feelings of fear, panic, aggression, and the accompanying bodily responses such as sweating, increased heart rate and muscle tension.  It might be that a heightened sense of control over these feelings and bodily responses, in the presence of danger, becomes addictive in itself!  It is much like a person with an eating disorder who becomes addicted to the attempts to control the body’s natural hunger states.

The addiction aspect of extreme activities likely also relates to the release of endorphins (the brain’s natural opioids, like heroin) that balance the thrill with feelings of relief after getting through a difficult climbing move, surfing a wave to the shore or landing safely on the ground after a paragliding trip.  But during the thrill itself, the brain’s mood, motivation and reward chemicals – serotonin and dopamine – are excessively released.  There is a theory that in everyday life (away from the mountain or ocean), thrill-seekers have lower levels of these chemicals circulating around the brain.  The seductive pull of getting back out to engage in these dangerous activities prompts a quick, surging release of serotonin that elevates the mood and attention; and increases the levels of dopamine that improves motivation, energy levels, which also feels so rewarding!  But like anything we do repetitively, the brain gets used to it, which in neuroscientific terms is called habituation.  This means that more receptors are rapidly created in the brain’s serotonin and dopamine circuits – or up-regulated – and much like hungry baby birds in a nest – the brain needs higher levels of these neurotransmitters to fill these up-regulated receptors to experience a high.

But as with all extreme pursuits, there is a real and present danger that things could go terribly wrong.  On 16th May 2015, 43-year-old Dean Potter – who was a World Champion extreme rock-climber, high-liner (tight-rope walking in high-up places) and B.A.S.E. jumper (jumping with a wing-suit from high places, often illegal) – died while B.A.S.E. jumping in Yosemite National Park in the USA.  While alive, he admitted that he was compelled to push the boundaries of his physical and mental capabilities, which also became his obsession.  And while it is great to push the boundaries of our capabilities so that we can grow and learn more about ourselves, adrenalin junkies are something different.  The changes in the brain that correspond to obsessive-compulsive and addictive behaviour can get dangerously out of control, like any compulsive disorder.  What is the take-home message from all of this?  With anything that can become addictive – try to build self-awareness – and try to be moderate in your enjoyment of thrill seeking, lest your brain craves nothing more than the next extreme high, at the expense of everything else, perhaps even your life!

Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.

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