Rob went skydiving recently. The idea of actually wanting to jump from a plane is so foreign to me, it’s actually difficult for my mind to actually grasp why anyone would want to do it, but I guess that’s true for a lot of things people do that I have no interest in. In fact, if you’re interested in reading about my personal experience of dealing with my husband wanting to go skydiving, you can read about it on our family blog.
What drives people to these sorts of acts that some might call “crazy”? More and more studies are showing that it may have something to do with genetics.
Just type “thrill seeking genes” in a Google search and you’ll come up with plenty of science-y articles about thrill seekers and the root cause of their risky behavior. It’s a popular subject that picked up steam all the way back in the 90’s.
The thrill seeking gene has been associated with drug use. It has been the blame for cheating spouses. Not all of the news is bad though! The gene can lead to a longer life. The Entrepreneurial Instinct is a book that extolls the virtues of using your thrill seeking gene to become an entrepreneur. Folks, bees are even getting in the mix! Maybe that’s why they were hanging out at the skydiving place.
There are so many variants to this topic and to the development of the human brain, it’s difficult to pinpoint one root cause for why people do certain things. In fact, thrill seeking is only one part of sensation seeking.
Per Wikipedia, sensation-seeking is broken up into four parts:
- Thrill- and adventure-seeking: Desire for outdoor activities involving unusual sensations and risks, such as skydiving, scuba diving, and flying.
- Experience-seeking: Referring to new sensory or mental experiences through unconventional choices, also including social nonconformity and desire to associate with unconventional people.
- Disinhibition: Preference of “out of control” activities such as wild parties, drinking and sexual variety
- Boredom susceptibility: intolerance of repetition or boring people, and restlessness in such conditions.
Genes exist that cause our brains to develop different levels of risk taking. Obviously, saying “thrill seeking gene” is an absolute over-simplification. Blaming this gene for dangerous behaviors, but praising it for it’s life-lengthening properties puts the gene in a juxtaposition that is hard to reconcile. Depending on your situation, this gene is the solution to your problems and/or the cause of them.
When the brain is developing, there is a gene called the neuroD2 that is in control of the development of the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain that deals with our emotions and our ability to sense danger. A study from 2006, who’s results are not the most current but they were interesting, used mice (who have 2 of the neuroD2 genes) to demonstrate what would happen to mice that only had one neuroD2 gene and mice that didn’t have any neuroD2 genes. Since mice naturally have two of these genes, it seems to make them a bit more paranoid; they tend to stay in dark places and hide from light. Some of the mice with only one neuroD2 gene would venture into well lit areas of mazes, but all the mice without any neuroD2 had no difficulties going into the light, and the mice that lacked the neuroD2 also did not mind being picked up.
From the article, another test with the mice involved “an elevated metal “plus-shaped” platform. Two arms had high rails to let the mice hide. The other two had no rails. Olson says, “A normal mouse will go into the arms of the plus maze where they have… walls where they can be protected.” But, he adds, “The mice that lack neurod2, particularly the ones who lack both copies of neurod2, will go out just as often into the walkways that don’t have any protection.”
The mice lacking the neuroD2 genes were what you would call “thrill seekers”!
Humans have only one neuroD2 gene, and having no neuroD2 is unlikely to occur in humans, as explained by Dr. Olson, “The more likely scenario is that the person might have a different gene sequence than other people … and those differences are what contribute to making some people behave or look different from other people… And I think that’s where we might start to see some variations in human behavior — why some people are fearless and other people are very risk averse.”
It is interesting that only 13.2% of the skydivers in 2012 were female. Does the neuron2 gene develop the amygdala differently in women, causing us to be less thrill seeking? As of right now, I can only pull up articles that say men are bigger risk takers. According to this study I found they wanted to, “find out if men are actually bigger risk takers than females or if this is just a stereotype given to their gender. We intend to prove or disprove the stereotype toward men and also shed some light on women and risk taking.” The study stated, “As far as we could conclude, the stereotype towards men and risk taking is true“. This was a small study, and predictably concluded that more research should be done.
Regarding genes, gender, and other potential influences on risk-taking, I agree with this article that pretty much says “it’s complicated”. I find it interesting to note that some people tend to think of thrill-seekers as a bad thing, while others think of it as a good thing. I find our advances in the studies of physiology, biology, and sociology to be fascinating. We continue to gain insight into why people are either thrilled or horrified by risk, explaining some of the differences between the “nothing ventured, nothing gained” crowd or the “curiosity killed the cat” camp.