Chesterton Tribune

Sensation seekers risk lives to feel the illusion of life

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Chuck Yeager. Ernest Shackleton. Edmund Hillary. Steve Irwin. Dale Earnhardt.

Hang gliders. Combat photographers. Tightrope walkers. White hunters. Army Rangers.

For some people a bit of a risk is not the spice of life, it’s the reason for life, and they pursue it as avidly as the rest of us do our golf games and summer reading.

Although they work and play dangerously, danger is merely the means to an end. And in the end they crave the jolt, the charge, which comes from testing their limits, playing a hunch, beating the odds. To feed their need they gravitate to uninsurable occupations and inadvisable hobbies. They become explorers and stuntmen, develop a taste for thin air and G-forces, holiday on cliff faces and in jungle deeps. They loath boredom, prize novelty, and like athletes—as many of them are—push their bodies and minds to extremes of endurance.

We know them as thrill seekers, and they frighten us because nothing at all seems to frighten them. Yet from the safety of our dens and patios in suburbia we owe them a great deal. They’re the groundbreakers and the trailblazers, and their adventures and misadventures alike are the backbone of history.

Scientists, always ready to complicate the commonplace, have dubbed them “sensation seekers,” a bit of jargon which in this case may be appropriate. For they seek nothing so subjective or undefinable as a “thrill.” Most of us are thrilled to win a few bucks in a scratch-off. Instead they seek intense physical stimulation—the cardio-pulmonary spike, the adrenaline gush, the endorphin glow—and they desire that stimulation almost as an addict desires his drug.

Indeed, research has begun to suggest a link between drug use and the sensation-seeking personality. That personality is not yet fully understood, but according to John Canright, a substance-abuse counselor in Chesterton, the consensus right now attributes sensation-seeking to a genetic glitch: probably to a bottleneck in the thalamus, the clearinghouse in the forebrain where all sensory data—with the exception of olfactory—are collected and then dispatched to the cerebral cortex for processing and action. As a crimp in a hose reduces a flow to a trickle, an “obstruction” in the thalamus would leave the brain understimulated, starved of impressions from the outside world.

Risk-taking, Canright says, is a generally “useful adaptation” learned by sensation seekers to compensate for that understimulation. “They’re usually people who could also be couch potatoes. They’ve found that doing daring things or doing exciting things or living on the edge stimulates them and they get pleasure from it. That sort of behavior hits the pleasure center and they get happy.”

I feel, therefore I am.

Ironically, underachieving may be as likely a product of the sensation-seeking personality as overachieving, when the hunger for stimulation is misdirected or inhibited early in life. Compulsive gambling or shopping, burglary and vandalism, promiscuous sex: these sorts of risky behaviors have all been associated with sensation-seeking.

As has drug use. As Canright notes, however, users tend not to view drugs per se as a risk. Of primary importance is their use of drugs as a form of “self-medication,” he says: uppers to scratch the itch in their brain, downers to numb it entirely, hallucinogens to readjust it. In short, those whose experience of the world is blunted, whose response to color and sound and touch and taste is muted, may find drugs an easy source of stimulation.

Still, for some young sensation seekers the drug subculture has an allure of its own, beyond its promise of a quick and heady high, says Rocco Schiralli, vice-president for addictions and children’s services at Porter Starke Counseling Centers. They enjoy the exhilaration of making a buy and breaking the law, of outwitting cops and their parents, of living life in the underground. They like the kick, say, of the road trip to the Chicago projects to purchase heroin. “It’s a dangerous adventure and they pulled it off and survived and now they have friends, so to speak, who look out for them and protect them when they’re there.”

On one issue Canright is clear. Children experiment with drugs for all sorts of reasons. They’re depressed or defiant or alienated. They want the approval of their peers. Or they seek sensation. But all of them have a freedom of choice. “Predisposition is not predestination,” he says, and sensation seekers are no more fated to become drug addicts or test pilots than the handsome and the beautiful are to become movie stars. “Animals must act out their natures. Human beings have a creative brain and can choose not to act our their natures.”


Children, on the other hand, do act out their natures, and parents can begin to discern sensation-seeking traits even in infants and toddlers. Dr. Sam Putnam, a psychologist at Bowen College in Maine, has discovered, for example, that some babies are more “approach-motivated” than others, more interested in their environment and more eager to explore it. In one experiment babies were exposed to blasts of white noise and then their heart rates measured. Low-approach babies evinced a typical fight-or-flight response; their heart rates jumped. High-approach babies—those with the sensation-seeking “temperament,” as he calls it—sought rather to identify and locate the noise and seemed to find it pleasurable; their heart rates actually slowed.

Putnam’s conclusion: the sensation-seeking temperament is “rather stable,” it emerges early in a child’s life, and it becomes more pronounced as the child matures. More pronounced and more easily recognizable. Young sensation-seekers prefer to play with “loud intense toys,” he says. They run when they can walk or shout when they can talk. They may be impulsive or aggressive. And in their search for stimulation they tend to take risks which appall their parents: playing in traffic, talking to strangers.

Yet parents should resist the temptation simply to quash risk-taking behavior, Putnam says. In children possessed of a sensation-seeking temperament risk-taking behavior may be an inevitable and ineradicable adaptation. It can’t be purged, at least not healthily. It can be focused constructively, though. “Give him a skateboard and a helmet. Parents who really try to battle this temperament are setting themselves up for a hard time.”

More to the point, parents should take the long view and accept risk-taking behavior for what it is: a possible predictor. Sensation seekers can lead marvelously successful lives. Or they can be waylaid. “When you take these risks,” Schiralli says, “you physiologically get an adrenaline rush. You get a shot of adrenaline which in and of itself is a drug. It’s a drug that your own body produces, a reward you get right away.” Without guidance or proper guidance, young sensation seekers may choose to replace adrenaline with an even more potent drug.

For Schiralli the question is simple enough. “How do you teach your kids to get that adrenaline surge from a rollercoaster or a skateboard?” Or else, he says, from athletics, theater, weightlifting, forensics: any activity which stimulates their bodies and minds.

But parents must be prepared to see their children falter, Schiralli adds. Their legs may be broken, their egos bruised. “If you don’t allow kids to make some choices and fail,” he says, “if you try to smother them, they’re going to rebel.”

Canright agrees. “If we’re too permissive we don’t teach our children how to do anything nor to take responsibility for what they do,” he says. “If we’re too strict, we don’t teach how to make decisions, just to follow orders. And that produces apathy and the spirit gets broken. Or you’ve got a real rebel on your hands.”

Unfortunately, Canright says, “over-protective parents” appear to be the norm in our risk-averse culture. “I’d say if we have anything with parents nowadays, we’ve got parents who are looking for zero risk in everything.”

Or for zero risk in the oddest of places. The world is full of risks, Schiralli says. Parents must distinguish high risks from low ones. “We spend all this time worrying about poisoned Halloween candy or pesticides on our fruit, but do we spend equal time worrying about something that is much more probable and likely? Talk to any kid at any school. Drugs are everywhere. They can get them anywhere.”

“This is the challenge,” Schiralli says. “How does a kid develop that positive niche in life so they get that healthy adrenaline rush and not something that’s self-destructive. That’s a challenge to parents, teachers, coaches, and people in the arts. Let’s stimulate this creativity and curiosity in kids. Because if we don’t, more often than not it’s substituted with something that boosts a kid right away, makes them feel better in 10 seconds.”


Posted 6/21/2002