Every adrenaline junkie knows the feeling: Heart pounding. Hands trembling. Blood racing. And then all of a sudden—flying. Plunging through the air, 18,000 feet above the earth, clinging to a parachute that could by all means fail. Hurtling 50 miles an hour down a 1,600-foot volcanic slope, on a “volcano board” popularized by young adventurers. Whooshing down white-water rapids on a flimsy raft. Or being strapped into a zero-gravity roller coaster and preparing to whirl upside down, again and again. Thrill-seekers crave that rush; they thrive on it.
“It’s the excitement,” says Frank Farley, a professor of educational psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. “It makes things interesting, keeps you going. When this life is over, you want to be able to look back and say, ‘I lived.’ As Helen Keller once said, ‘Life is a daring adventure, or it is nothing.’”
In the 1980s, Farley coined the term Type T personality to describe thrill-seekers, or those who crave variety, novelty, intensity, and risk. These are people who long for exciting, meaningful challenges. Some enjoy the physical sensations that come from being scared silly; others like the idea that they’re pushing themselves to the extreme.
At least to some degree, Type Ts are born that way, Farley says. Though researchers don’t yet have all the answers, it’s clear that biology plays a role. Neuro-chemicals like dopamine and testosterone appear to affect how inclined someone is to play it safe or live on the wild side, as does the amount of white matter in the brain.
Other factors are psychological and rooted in personality. Thrill-seekers tend to be creative folks who like to make up their own minds. “They’re energetic and self-confident,” Farley says. “And they feel in control of their fate. When they climb Mt. Everest, they figure they’re going to come back. If someone tells them not to do it, that sounds like a rule, so away they go.”