Risky business

Albert Einstein and Evel Knievel were both looking for the same high.

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“What was he thinking?”

It’s a question echoing through responses to the Kennedy tragedy, as people weigh the risk he took in flying at night. But the question is better asked of someone else, according to scientists who study the psychology of risk-taking — someone like Michael Ballacchino.

Ballacchino lay down on his Honda Magna V-45 750 motorcycle at 130 mph, hanging on like laundry on a gusty day. “It was a real rush,” he deadpanned. He stopped at 130 mph because “the motorcycle started screaming.” And, well, it’s not like he has a death wish.

Or does he? According to classic psychoanalytic theory, Ballacchino wants his disk re-formatted and is simply trying to figure out whether he wants it
done on a Mac or a PC. The concept of Thanatos, the instinct toward death and self-destruction, is a famous Freudian concept; the psychoanalyst believed that Eros, the life instinct, must be opposed and balanced by the death instinct. To Freud, the healthy person looks for ways to reduce stress and tension. Imagine what he would have thought of today’s adventure-seekers.

In psychoanalytic circles, Ballacchino’s 90-foot jump from a cliff jutting
over Georgia’s Lake Altoona classifies him as dysfunctional. His father would get the same label,
for giving him helpful tips. But psychologist Frank Farley, a University of Wisconsin psychologist and past president of the
American Psychological Association, disagrees.
He would likely consider Ballacchino a classic example of what he calls “Type T” personality (as in thrill-seeker).

Farley has built a personality model for people whose idea of a good time is probably your idea of a heart attack. His research showed that thrill-seekers crave novelty,
excitement and adventure on a constant basis. They live for the surge of
vitality that comes from letting go of life’s handrails. Some Type T’s
express this in an intellectual way — and some, like Ballacchino, do it by
jumping off the roof of their house, confident that the mattress below will
break their fall.

According to Farley, the same inner force that propelled Evel Knievel to want to jump
the Grand Canyon propelled the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to jump-start the Montgomery bus boycott. For Type T’s, the quest for adventure can span many arenas; it isn’t just the physical rush, but also the intellectual and sometimes moral highs that risk-takers crave. Farley categorized Albert Einstein as a “Type T Mental” because ideas, not stunts, were his stimulating jolt of choice. Why jump out of an airplane when you can jump out of the space-time continuum?

Jake Rothschild is the perfect Type T contradiction — a thrill-seeker scared to death of roller coasters. Rothschild is afraid of falling out of bed, let
alone out of a plane. Yet he lives every bit as much on the edge as
free-falling skydivers. An entrepreneur most of his adult life, Rothschild
has lost businesses, contemplated personal bankruptcies and faced imminent foreclosures, all for the thin stream of oxygen called self-employment. Yet he lives for the promised sniff. The surge he gets from beating the odds and creating a business is indistinguishable from the surge a daredevil gets when he goes over the falls in a barrel. His current business — J.D. Rothschild & Co., a gourmet food producer — is a perfect example. Though it’s been met with astonishingly good reviews in the food press, the company has had at least three near-death experiences in securing capital. “I’m falling,” said Rothschild, echoing countless skydivers, “and I’m counting on that parachute to open when I need it.”

Many psychologists see the intoxication with stimulation as a biological throwback that preserved the species. An entire family could die if they all crowded into a cave without someone first checking for grizzlies. Throughout history, there was always an idiot in the family who volunteered.

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The “need for speed” has forged the American character in such a way that Farley believes we are, in essence, a Type T nation. In fact, any country built by emigration — like the United States, Canada or Australia — will have Type T
platelets coursing through its national arteries. What could be more daring than to leave friends and family for parts unknown? America, rooted in rebellion and revolution, stretched by fearless frontiersmen and capitalized by
high-flying industrialists, is a thrill-seeking missile compared to other
countries. Today, our very affluence and stability give rise to the inner wild
child. The more unstable the culture, the less Type T personalities it tends
to have, according to many psychologists. You don’t see too many Kosovars
bungee-jumping off bombed-out river bridges.

But a funny thing happened on the way to our recklessness. For all our
Type T behavior, we live in a wuss culture. You can’t swing a helmeted cat
without hitting a mandated safety precaution, a risk-reducing law or a
stimulant-choking health trend. In fact, if you’re middle class in America, it’s hard to find real danger. Our hamburgers
are cooked to 165 degrees, our kitchens are Lysoled, our floors Pine-Soled
and our souls handcuffed to the television. We’re insured, benefited and
parachuted. We’ve got 911, 501 blues and 401(k)s. We’ve got disability,
dental and dismemberment. You can’t slip on a sidewalk without being served a subpoena.

As the natural excitement and stimulation of life gags on America’s
preventive chokehold, we’ve come up with more things to throw ourselves off of — like radio antennas and bridges. There is a huge paradox to a
frontier-busting culture now disinfecting itself from the slightest odor of danger. And to each paradox, a mutation must come. Ours is called extreme sports. BASE jumping (the acronym stands for Buildings, Antennas, Spans and Earth) is one of the hottest extreme sports in the country. Think skyscrapers, parachutes and
pavement and you get the general idea. As champion BASE jumper Frank Gambalie told U.S. News & World Report, “There aren’t many injuries in BASE
jumping. You either live or you die.”

Josh Krulewitz, communications manager for ESPN, says the network carries “a couple hundred hours” of extreme sports. Presumably, the corporate sponsor is Xanax. The signature competition for the genre is the X Games: “Nielsen clocked 19 million viewers over the course of the week-long event,” Krulewitz crowed. The games took place in San Francisco last month, with 268,000 people in attendance.

Competition included “street luge” — a race involving eight-foot wheeled aluminum caskets roaring down hills at 60 mph with racers lying down, inches off the pavement — and history was made in the skateboarding competition, when Tony Hawk landed the first “900″ in the
sport. (He flew off the 12-foot “vert ramp,” leveled off at a cruising altitude of about 13 feet, rotated two and a half times in the air and, like triple-axle Olympic ice skaters, landed without falling. Or breaking
anything.)

If Farley and company explain thrill-seeking as the cognitive nuts and behavioral bolts of personality theories, Marvin Zuckerman sees it as a
genetic predisposition handed down like hazardous heirlooms. Zuckerman, a
professor of psychology at the University of Delaware, is a pioneer in the
genetic wing of arousal studies. A couple of decades ago, he ignited the
debate with a groundbreaking study of twins. His biometric analysis of what
he dubbed “sensation-seeking” in fraternal and identical twins revealed that
the nagging thirst for excitement may be inherited. “The heritable property of variances attributed to genetics was 60 percent,” Zuckerman said from his
university office, “even among twins raised in different families.”
Considering that heritability factors in other areas of human studies average
around 40 percent, Zuckerman believes he showed a “strong indication that
sensation-seeking is inherited.”

The discovery of the dopamine-4 receptor by an Israeli scientist in 1997
supports Zuckerman’s early findings. For the first time, a gene was associated with a personality trait. While no scientist worth his white coat
attributes traits to a single gene, the discovery of the “novelty-seeking”
gene added another layer of dots and dashes to the developing picture of human behavior.

Come on, you might think. Driving drunk on a wet bridge is genetic? Playing football on an icy ski slope is a deficit of neurotransmitters? Piloting an airplane over fog and water with a bum leg results from serotonin regulators on the blink? Well, not exactly.

Zuckerman developed a four-part sensation-seeking scale measuring the
propensity for “thrill and adventure seeking.” In his book “Behavioral
Expression and Biosocial Bases of Sensation Seeking” (Cambridge University
Press, 1994), Zuckerman defined the “High Sensation Seeker” as “seeking
novel, intense or complex sensations and experiences and willing to take
risks to get them.”

Through blood-chemistry analysis, Zuckerman found that such High Sensation Seekers have lower levels of monoamine oxidase, an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. “MAO is a protective enzyme,” said Zuckerman. “It regulates chemicals associated with arousal and pleasure like a thermostat regulating the temperature in a room.”

And for High Sensation Seekers, the room feels like a meat locker. Everyday life leaves them cold; predictability leaves them frozen. So they fire up
the heater with stunts, leaving themselves with a racing heart and us with an open mouth.

The role of MAO is far from clear. The only thing scientists agree on is that it plays a central role in regulating the pleasure principle. Still,
some patterns emerge: Low MAO levels seem to produce thrill-seekers, partyers, pioneers, social activists, policemen, emergency workers — people and activities that smack of risk. High MAO levels on the other hand, are associated with depression and bipolar disorders.

But there’s a dark side to all this sensation-seeking (as if there were a light side to death and dismemberment). High Sensation Seekers don’t always manifest as Michael Ballacchinos, jumping over their Alfa Romeos on skates. They’re often drug addicts, sex addicts, alcoholics or criminals who live under the doctrine of impulse. For every Ballacchino there’s a Belushi.
For every daredevil there’s a Dillinger. The Force may be with you, but it’s
just as likely to land you in jail as in the history books — if you believe the growing number of scientists who believe sensation-seeking may be a critical factor in crime.

The mechanism behind the high-throttle stakes for the next high may still be a mystery, but our underlying admiration for it is not. “If you’re not living on the edge,” said a poster at the X Games, “you’re taking up too much room.” We’re a country invented by sensation-seekers, and we’ve got a reputation to live up to. Broken limbs and watery graves notwithstanding, as long as we have the breath to exercise one last piece of bad judgment, we will do so.

Michael Alvear is the author of "Men Are Pigs But We Love Bacon," a collection of his sex advice columns, to be published by Kensington Press in May. He lives in Atlanta.

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