Posted by: quienessupa | March 24, 2009

Adrenaline for life and time travel

According to a discovery channel show (Adrenaline Rush:  The Science of Risk), extreme risk takers have about 1/3 less MAO(Monoamine Oxidase) than “normal” people.  This condition is also linked with antisocial behavior (like crime and addiction).  MAO regulates serotonin.  Serotonin is linked with feelings of well being and anxiety. 

Fear initiates the fight or flight response in us, which causes adrenaline to show up and increases the heart rate and raises the body temperature.  Blood is moved away from the internals and to the limbs for action and readiness.  Even experienced extreme sports enthusiasts experience fear right before committing action.  However, these people would say the shakiness of the fear is just part of the journey.  Initially after a rush of adrenaline, the body raises endorphins which are associated with pain relief and pleasure, resulting in a long pleasurable high feeling.  Here’s an excerpt from the TV show.  It’s in IMAX’s too which would be worth a trip!

The point about lower MAO levels is the first anatomical thing I’ve heard that characterizes Adrenaline Junkies or people who do more high-thrill activities.  Is it that the lower MAO levels make a more extreme experience necessary to feel the benefits of the natural high (more seratonin)?  Doesn’t seem right.  Is it that the lower amount of MAO allows the adrenaline high (emission of seratonin) to be unregulated on the up side… meaning the seratonin is unchecked and provides a greater than average high for these people?  That would agree with my experience at least.


There’s another rich experience subject I wish had definitive scientific explanation.  Do our brains process information quicker during a high-fear or life/death situation? 

The below livescience link takes the opposite stance from the video.  Seemingly using the same type of experiment.  Their result is that the brain does NOT take in more information per second during heightened adrenaline periods.  It seemed to use the same type of clock reading experiment which leads us into the black of ambiguity.  “Proof” on both sides of the argument. 

If that study is right, then I’d pose a slightly different question.  Does our body change with a life/death situation?  Maybe our perception that time slows down isn’t that our brain is able to take in more information per second… but that our brain is changing it’s method of processing to result in quicker reactions.  So, I could buy that the brain is “seeing” the world in the same slow rate, but I believe strongly that twice as fast actions and decisions are getting made when I’ve encountered the sense that time slows down.  Here’s an attempt to explain how/why.

Ever noticed how a cat, or some other non-thinking animals are mostly instinctual and react to most anything as life and death with incredible reaction times?  They aren’t programmed to think first by nature so we see raw instinct and it’s mind blowing.  I know my cat used to be able to take the rabbits foot before I could get my limbs to grab it.


What makes sense to me is that when fear of demise is imminent, humans’ thought processes (Cerebrum I think) take a back seat to action of our limbs.  We no longer act via deliberation and normal conscious/emotional decision.  Like a cat that doesn’t send actions thru a long synapse chain of memories/thoughts/emotions to decide whether or not to flee, we shorten our synapse chain in an emergency to create immediate and instinctual actions.  The sense that time changes might be a result of our decisions/reactions happening about twice as fast usual while our Cerebrum is recording from the back seat at the same ol’ rate.  

This could explain why in Hang Gliding, it’s important to take small steps in advancement as the instinctual reactions take many nights sleep to get ingrained.  Good instructors all know this, but I guess I’m just trying to explain it’s connection to my point here.  They know that if the instincts aren’t there, a bad situation could leave a student in a frozen fear.  Like I said before, fight or flight takes blood from the brain to limbs and it’s hard to ponder new ideas or scenarios with the relatively slow and maybe oxygen starved Cerebrum!!  As much as possible needs to be ingrained in our “Lizard” brain as we approach new experiences… Like Aerotowing for me!  LOL

There it is.


  1. Interesting stuff, BJ. You might also want to do some reading into the role of dopamine and how it relates to pleasure and risk taking. I’m minimally versed in neurochemistry, but I think the pleasure aspect of adrenaline seeking behaviors must be factored into the picture too. I didn’t become fully aware that I was adrenaline junky until the some point late in my college career when I started taking my automotive hijinks to new levels. My car at the time – a honda civic wagon – was an interesting blend of traits: hopefully anemic, yet with very good overall handling (beating Ferrari’s and Maseratis through the 400 foot slalom in Road & Track’s 1985 tests), but also low in overall traction. So, what this all meant is that I would go drag it to the top of some mountain and then come careening back down the road (my little gravity racer). I can still remember the first time I slid the car around a corner. It was pure exhiliration. I soon got my technique down: approach the corner with too much speed, brake hard while entering the corner – which would lighten up the rear end and induce a slide – and then countersteer through the slide as the car drifted around the corner. The thing was that I would probably crash if I didn’t slide the car, because not only did the slide induce oversteer, it bled off a considerable amount of speed (I wish i had a video of me doing this because it was a dramatic sight… and I could do this while keeping the car in my lane the whole time). Either way, the risks were high and it was fundamentally nutty, but to me it not only felt awesome and exciting, but also strangely normal and acceptable. In other words, the fear that probably should have been a more powerful force inhibiting my actions fell into the background, eclipsed by the sheer thrill of it all. Part of this was certainly adrenal, but the sensation was mostly that of pure pleasure (which is tied to dopamine). Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t fearless because fear was always there, but the fear was tempered by the sheer rush of it all (or the fear became the rush, or a mix of both, I still haven’t entirely figured it out myself). I consider that experiential state different than moments where I’ve had the fight or flight fear response. I think the difference lay in the fact that the fear factor which induces the flight or flight response is not only much greater, it is more importantly characterized by a big whopping dose of the unknown – the “what’s happening here?” or “am I going to die?” moments. In the end, I do know I get a rush out of being at the limit between what to me is managed risk and completely loosing it. How this relates to dopamine, though, is that like the MAO deficiency, some individual’s brains either lack the normal amount of dopamine receptors or the dopamine receptors are abnormally insensitive. In other words, their brains are less sensitive to pleasure and the sensation of a “rush,” so they tend to seek more as compensation. Equally important is that the dopamine switch, the threshold at which normal brains say, “ok, this is fun/thrilling/pleasurable, but it’s also enough,” simply doesn’t kick in. This not only relates to thrill seeking but to all sorts of forms of overindulgence (sex, food, drugs, gambling, alcohol, etc.) I find it personally interesting because I’m a recovering alcoholic who also had a minor in drug addiction. I have often felt that my adrenaline seeking behaviors lead to a similar state of wanting more and more and more (the bottomless more). Just like I couldn’t drink without getting completely plastered, the off switch is either non-existent or slow to kick in when it comes to thrilling activities. I just can’t turn it down. While I’m happy my drinking and drugging days are behind me because the “thrill” of it all slowly became a complete hell, I don’t think I’ll be leaving behind my penchant for having a little fun in my car. It’s just too damn much fun, and, unlike when I was sixteen, my driving skills are commensurate with the risks I’m taking (ok, for the most part….). Honestly, though, the thought of taking up hang gliding is very appealing, but is also tempered by an awareness of my personality and the dangers posed by my love of finding the edge and then going a little farther. The consequences of making mistake, or misjudging you or your vessel’s capabilities, are obviously much higher in the air than on the ground (that and the whole idea of my feet and legs as landing gear also gives me a slight pause). Still, I know I’ll do it someday and I’ll be hopelessly hooked. Interesting subject, though, and you have admit that being an adrenaline junky is its own curious form of insanity. There have been times I’ve gotten out of a car with so much adrenaline going through me that I was literally shaking. You say to yourself, “ok, this is too much,” and then immediately start thinking about doing it again.

  2. Wow, Marc, you definately get what I’m saying and where I’m coming from. I’m glad I struck a chord. As a completely 100% carbon copy in your sentiments, I can say that Hang Gliding might just take over your life forever (like mine) and some things might never be the same.
    I’ve had to buy a big 11mpg truck to slow down enough on the road to keep my license since it’s been revoked twice for speeding tickets. I also would love to share some Yamaha R6 stories with you over a beer (maybe I did). I always gave myself less than 50% chance of making it past 30. Literally, I hit 130mph+ every single time I get on that bike. I relate to the lack of stopping mechanism. I’ll always be the last guy at the poker/blackjack/whatever table. Always. I’ll get into the dopamine research too. Like maybe Alcohol for you, I don’t think I will stop Hang Gliding until it’s turned into complete hell. And with my conscience, it’s often pretty hellacious feeling like I’m neglecting the one’s I care about most. Similar example, the switch saying, “OK, that’s fast enough” on the motorcycle just isn’t there until my neck hair is standing up and there’s a clammyness to my hands. I don’t know why, but I know that’s me, in spite of family, police, friends’ pleading that I’m nutz/stupid/death crazed whatever. They just don’t get it. In Hang Gliding, the entire process of learning step by step is exhilarating.. alway building up to the point where you have complete freedom. Like getting your drivers license for a 4 wheeled roller coaster at age 16, getting your HG rating is like getting a license on a roller coaster that has no tracks…

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