A RIP-ROAR­ING RIDE

The Psy­chol­ogy of Roller Coast­ers ROLLER COAST­ERS MAY SEEM LIKE A VERY MOD­ERN TYPE OF EN­TER­TAIN­MENT – CON­STANTLY GET­TING BIG­GER, FASTER AND SCARIER THANKS TO AD­VANCES IN TECH­NOL­OGY. BUT THEY AC­TU­ALLY DATE BACK TO THE MID-1800S. GRAV­ITY-PRO­PELLED RAIL­WAYS

In Flight Magazine - - BITE THE BUG - { TEXT: RICHARD STEPHENS: SE­NIOR LEC­TURER IN PSY­CHOL­OGY, KEELE UNIVER­SITY / WWW.THE­CON­VER­SA­TION.COM IM­AGES © ISTOCKPHOTO.COM }

To­day theme parks are big busi­ness. But with queues oc­ca­sion­ally as long as eight hours for an av­er­age ride of un­der two min­utes – not to men­tion re­ports of rid­ers suf­fer­ing strokes, brain dam­age and se­ri­ous in­jury due to crashes – how come we put our­selves through it? What is it about roller coast­ers that some love so much? And is it an ex­pe­ri­ence we tend to like less as we get older?

En­joy­ing roller coast­ers is linked to sen­sa­tion seek­ing – the ten­dency to en­joy var­ied, novel and in­tense phys­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences such as rock climb­ing and para­chute jump­ing. But what sen­sa­tion do roller coast­ers pro­vide that is so al­lur­ing? At first glance, it may seem to be down to the ex­pe­ri­ence of speed. But the ev­i­dence for link­ing sen­sa­tion seek­ing to speed is not com­pelling. For ex­am­ple, when it comes to driv­ing at speeds above the le­gal limit, not just sen­sa­tion seek­ers do it, many oth­ers do too.

Per­haps the draw of roller coast­ers is the en­joy­ment of the vis­ceral sen­sa­tion of fear it­self, much like watch­ing a hor­ror movie. Phys­i­cal signs of fear such as a pound­ing heart, faster breath­ing and an en­ergy boost caused by the re­lease of glu­cose are known col­lec­tively as the “fight-or-flight re­sponse”. We know that a roller coaster ride is likely to trig­ger this re­sponse thanks to re­searchers who mea­sured the heart rates of rid­ers on the dou­ble-corkscrew Coca Cola Roller in 1980s Glas­gow, Scot­land. Heart­beats per minute more than dou­bled, from an av­er­age 70 be­fore­hand to 153 shortly after the ride

had be­gun. Some older rid­ers got un­com­fort­ably close to what would be deemed med­i­cally un­safe for their age.

In an­other adrenalin-boost­ing pas­time, novice bungee jumpers not only re­ported in­creased feel­ings of well-be­ing, wake­ful­ness and eu­pho­ria just after com­plet­ing a jump, they also had raised lev­els feel-good en­dor­phins in the blood. In­ter­est­ingly, the higher the lev­els of en­dor­phins that were present, the more eu­phoric the jumper re­ported feel­ing. Here, then, is clear ev­i­dence that peo­ple en­joy the sen­sa­tions that ac­com­pany the fight-or-flight re­sponse within a non-threat­en­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

GOOD VS BAD STRESS

And yet, para­dox­i­cally, these bungee jumpers also showed in­creased lev­els of the hor­mone cor­ti­sol, known to in­crease when peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence stress. How, then, can a per­son si­mul­ta­ne­ously ex­pe­ri­ence stress and plea­sure? The an­swer is that not all stress is bad. Eus­tress – from the Greek “eu”, mean­ing good, as in eu­pho­ria – is a pos­i­tive kind of stress that peo­ple ac­tively seek out.

We know that a roller coaster ride can be ex­pe­ri­enced as “eu­stress­ful” thanks to an in­trigu­ing study by two Dutch psy­chol­o­gists. They were in­ter­ested in asthma, and specif­i­cally its re­la­tion­ship with stress. Hav­ing noted pre­vi­ous re­search find­ings that stress leads asthma suf­fer­ers to per­ceive their asthma symp­toms as more se­vere, they won­dered whether an op­po­site ef­fect might be pos­si­ble by ap­ply­ing eus­tress.

And so, in the name of sci­ence, some asth­matic stu­dent vol­un­teers were trans­ported to a theme park and rode a roller coaster while their res­pi­ra­tory func­tion was checked.The re­search find­ings were re­mark­able. While lung func­tion pre­dictably re­duced from the scream­ing and gen­eral up­heaval, so did the feel­ing of short­ness of breath. This sug­gests that thrill seek­ers rid­ing roller coast­ers per­ceive the ex­pe­ri­ence as stress­ful in a pos­i­tive way.

THE ROLE OF DOPAMINE

But roller coast­ers are not every­body’s cup of tea. Could dif­fer­ences in brain chem­istry ex­plain sen­sa­tion-seek­ing be­hav­iours? The ex­per­i­ment with bungee jumpers sug­gest that peo­ple with higher lev­els of en­dor­phins feel higher lev­els of eu­pho­ria. But there is no ev­i­dence that rest­ing lev­els of en­dor­phins might ex­plain sen­sa­tion seek­ing – they are more likely a re­sponse to the thrill than a pre­dic­tor of whether we en­joy it.

A re­cent re­view in­stead looked at the role of dopamine, an­other chem­i­cal messenger sub­stance in the brain that is

im­por­tant in the func­tion­ing of neu­ro­log­i­cal re­ward path­ways. The re­view found that in­di­vid­u­als who hap­pen to have higher lev­els of dopamine also score more highly on mea­sures of sen­sa­tion-seek­ing be­hav­iour. While this is a cor­re­la­tion rather than a cau­sa­tion, an­other study found that tak­ing a sub­stance called haloperi­dol, which dis­rupts dopamine’s ef­fects within the brain, led to a mea­sur­able de­crease in sen­sa­tion-seek­ing be­hav­iour.

This line of re­search raises the in­trigu­ing pos­si­bil­ity that en­joy­ment of in­tense phys­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences such as rid­ing on roller coast­ers may re­flect in­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in brain chem­istry. Peo­ple who have higher lev­els of dopamine may be more prone to a num­ber of sen­sa­tion-seek­ing be­hav­iours, rang­ing from harm­less roller coaster rides to tak­ing drugs or even shoplift­ing.

The ques­tion as to whether roller coaster rid­ing still ap­peals as we get older has not been re­searched di­rectly, but a re­cent sur­vey looked at how keen peo­ple of dif­fer­ent ages were on thrill-seek­ing hol­i­days such as rock-climb­ing trips. It showed that in­ter­est in these kinds of hol­i­days peaks in early adult­hood, and then de­cline with each pass­ing decade. T his in­di­cates that older adults are less in­clined to par­tic­i­pate in ac­tiv­i­ties sim­i­lar to rid­ing roller coast­ers. Per­haps ex­pe­ri­enc­ing one’s heart rate spik­ing dan­ger­ously close to med­i­cally ac­cepted risk lev­els is not such a draw for the over 50s.

Though hard to pin down, peo­ple en­joy roller coast­ers thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of speed, con­quer­ing fear, and the pos­i­tive ef­fects as­so­ci­ated with a mas­sive rise in phys­i­o­log­i­cal arousal. A roller coaster ride is a le­gal, gen­er­ally safe, and rel­a­tively cheap means of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a nat­u­ral high. Un­der­stand­ably, peo­ple have been happy to pay money in ex­change for do­ing it for cen­turies, and there is no sign of any wan­ing in the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of a bit of eus­tress.

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