We travel to the brain of those who risk the most exciting adventures, from the origin of man to the stratosphere
For many, the Austrian Félix Baumgartner, who broke three Guinness records by parachuting from a balloon 39 kilometers high, is the prototype of the modern adventurer. You may not have heard of Larry Walters. In 1982, Larry, a truck driver who had always wanted to be a pilot, tied 45 helium balloons to his plastic chair on his porch. Although he had intended to circle over his house, he had misjudged the thrust and, by cutting the moorings, he was shot at full speed into the sky.
Armed with a walkie-talkie , a sandwich, some beers and a compressed air gun, Larry reached 4,600 meters high, where a couple of commercial planes spotted him. He managed to descend safely by bursting the balloons one by one with his pistol. On the ground, he was detained and fined for flying over the corridor of the Long Beach, California, airport without establishing two-way communication with the control tower.
The definition of an adventure is “an enterprise with an uncertain result or one that presents risks.” It seems that throughout history there has always been a group of people for whom risk, endangering their lives, is exciting, irresistible. For millennia, moreover, there were good attractions: undiscovered continents, oceans that no one had crossed, impregnable mountains, hidden treasures… The world was immense and mysterious.
About 130,000 years ago, the ancestors of modern man left their African cradle
Today, every square meter of the planet has been mapped by GPS and photographed by satellites. Have we run out of challenges? In any travel agency you can hire an ascent to the peak of Kilimanjaro. There are luxury cruises to Antarctica. Some 800 people a year pay between 20,000 and 50,000 euros to attack the summit of Everest, where there is a serious problem of accumulated garbage. With a few million dollars in your pocket, you can even buy a ticket to space with Virgin Galactic or XCOR, two companies that promise even more affordable spacewalks in the coming years. Adventures can be bought, but money has never been an obstacle to embarking on great journeys.
The man experiences a certain need to risk his skin, for no other reason than to do it better than another. In this we differ from other species
In 2004, at the age of 14, Albert Casals told his parents that he wanted to see the world. In 2006 he left his home in Esparraguera to undertake the first of his solo trips. In three years he had visited 25 countries. Worthy of admiration, but it wouldn’t be remarkable if it weren’t for the fact that Albert has been in a wheelchair since he was eight years old. In one of the stages, he left for Latin America with 20 euros in his pocket and returned with the same amount six months later, sneaking into trains or getting money on the street doing tricks with his wheelchair.
Nor does it seem that sex or age are an inconvenience when it comes to doing crazy things. Former long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad decided at the age of 64 to complete a feat that no one had achieved before. In August 2013, he jumped into the sea from Havana, Cuba, and swam the 180 kilometers that separate it from Florida… without using a shark cage. After 54 hours of fighting currents and jellyfish, he reached the Key West beach.
What paste are these people made of? Are they crazy, heroes, or a mix of the two? The answer is inside their minds.
The brain of the intrepid
In 1960, the psychologist at the University of Delaware Marvin Zuckerman realized that many of the volunteers who came to his laboratory to get into sensory isolation tanks wore motorcycle helmets. This made him think that certain personalities are more likely to take risks, something he called “sensation seeking”.
Although we all have some adventurers inside us, it is estimated that only ten percent of the population is really addicted to risk. They are those people who enjoy riding roller coasters, alternately get rich or go broke investing in the stock market, run for election, gamble all their savings on one deal after another, and parachute out of buildings. There is something really interesting in the investigations with this human model, the heads and tails of the adventurer. They are people with a high degree of passion, but they also have more chances to break their heads or end up hooked on cocaine. The difference seems to be in dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates the reward centers of our brain.
In every population there are individuals who take more risks. They are the mice that get food despite the danger
The reward associated with certain experiences, such as sex, food and drugs, increase the activity of dopamine. In a study led by David Zald of Vanderbilt University, it was found that people who took more risks had lower than normal levels of dopamine. In addition, they had fewer autoreceptors, the parts of neurons that are responsible for reuptake circulating dopamine when there is too much.
That is, in a small percentage of the population, the “high” produced by a new sensation is much greater than in the rest of the people, because the regulation system is deficient. As if that were not enough, when they are not experiencing new sensations they are at greater risk of becoming depressed. It is not surprising, then, that they are also prone to gambling and drug addiction.
Sensations are part of the equation; most adventurers also have a certain disregard for their physical integrity. At the University of Los Angeles, neurologist Russell Poldrack studied the brains of several volunteers with an MRI scanner while they played a simple video game. With a button they had to inflate a balloon on the screen. The more the balloon was inflated, the higher the score, but also the risk of it bursting, in which case they lost everything.
The risk-addicted volunteers not only scored many more points than the others (and many more blowouts), but what was happening in their brains was also different. In most of the volunteers, when the balloon burst, the amygdala, the part of the brain where fear resides, was activated. In the crazy adventurers the amygdala remained asleep, but the blowout turned on the ventral striatum, the center of pleasure.
Why did we leave Africa?
The departure of Homo sapiens from Africa was the first great adventure of our species. What moved you? The search for more benign climates, the scarcity of food, the flight from danger, or all at once? The journey began a little over 100,000 years ago. He first came to Asia, and then to Europe, where he encountered the Neanderthals. Then it reached Australia, and finally the American continent, which began to be populated about 15,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. These humans crossed what are now narrow land bridges and arrived aboard rudimentary rafts, as the Kon-Tiki expedition proved. We have not stopped traveling since then.
The two characteristics do not always occur together. There are adventurers who love strong sensations, but calculate their exploits down to the last detail to avoid taking risks. The Wright brothers not only built the first heavier-than-air flying machine, but also piloted it themselves. But the Wrights were engineers before they were pilots. “I have no intention of taking risks,” wrote Wilbur Wright, “because I do not want to hurt myself, and because a fall would impede my experiments, which I would not like at all.”
At the other extreme is the story of Commander Lionel “Buster” Crabb, who after working as an arms dealer, model and spy, at the outbreak of World War II volunteered to deactivate submerged bombs. Crabb could not swim, was nearsighted, and hated physical exertion. He was never interested in knowing how the diving suit worked or the security measures. He smoked, drank, gambled and, according to his ex-wife, had a latex fetish. Despite everything, he was decorated for his courage, before mysteriously disappearing on a mission in 1956.
The audacity of evolution
And where does the impulse come from? Were there adventurers among our prehistoric ancestors? To answer that question we would have to know if they also exist among animals. The answer is yes.
Several experiments with animals have been able to verify that in any population there is always a group of individuals who take more risks. They are the mice that chase after food despite the danger of an electric shock, or the fish that venture down a narrow channel without knowing whether or not there is food on the other side. These differences are genetic, and the same variation in certain genes is known to occur in humans as well.
However, in the human species the brain evolved to be able to project the consequences of actions in the future. Taking risks thus meant being aware of both the danger and the reward. Our first adventures as a species surely had to do with survival: one of the prohominids in the group ventures into a cave seeking refuge, or dares to throw a stone at a leopard to scare it away. However, the control of fire and tools, something that the latest discoveries place a million years ago, were the true human adventures.
Our most daring ancestors overcame the fear of fire and got heat, protection and better food in return. Humanity was never the same again.
Not only the species evolves; we ourselves also change throughout our lives. Teenagers are more likely to take risks and put themselves in danger: skateboarding off a rooftop or driving drunk. Between the ages of 15 and 20, the human brain undergoes a complete transformation, and during this period new emotions produce a much more intense sense of reward (dopamine) than in adults. Dangerous, but very useful, since the learning obtained provides skills that are useful for the rest of our lives.
See how others risk
But what about the other humans who watched while the “crazy” lit fire? They are the first armchair adventurers. Being a spectator is also a way to excite the adventurous part of our brain, as shown by the attraction that action or horror movies have for many people, even if in their daily lives they are not too risky. Television programs such as Desafío extremo, by Jesús Calleja, and their equivalents in other countries, have remained at the top of the ratings for years.
The pleasure of losing
Volunteers from the University of Los Angeles inflated a balloon. The more it inflated, the higher the score, but also the risk that it would burst and they would lose everything. Risk addicts got more points (and more blowouts). When the balloon burst, the amygdala, where fear resides, was activated. In adventurers, the amygdala remained dormant and the blowout ignited the ventral striatum, the reward center. The zones that are activated before inflating the balloon (in green), compared to those that are activated when you decide to play (in red).
Studies show that people who enjoy horror movies are also more sensitive to dopamine. The premise of these movies is usually the same: something unknown or out of our control threatens our lives (the same thing happens with those who jump from a mountain in a parachute). This causes a rush of cortisol, the stress hormone. When it’s all over, the “reward” of pizza and chatting with friends sends dopamine even higher.
In search of North Greenland
Prestige, money and fame seem, then, to be more a consequence than a cause of the adventurous spirit. There will always be a “crazy” willing to break all limits for the simple pleasure of doing so. Still, are there still borders to cross in this super-connected world?
As much as it seems that the planet is becoming too small for us, there are still areas that resist appearing in the Trip Advisor recommendations. If we try to zoom in on North Greenland on Google Maps, the system runs out of detailed images. The frozen continent has a huge expanse yet to be discovered, including hundreds of mountains that no one has climbed and don’t even have names. The interior of the island of Papua New Guinea is dense rainforest, mountains and extinct volcanoes, and is so unexplored that each expedition discovers dozens of new species of plants and animals. The Darién region, between Panama and Colombia, is a practically impenetrable swamp. Very little is known about the land that lies under the ice of Antarctica.
As if this were not enough, four fifths of the planet are still to be explored. They are the unknown depths of the oceans. The Mariana Trench, with a depth of 11,000 meters, could swallow Everest and there would still be room to spare. There have only been four manned descents to its bottom.
Mars One, a program to launch the first manned mission to Mars, offered a one-way trip to the inhospitable planet and condemned volunteer pioneers in advance to spend the rest of their days inside a steel container surrounded by an atmosphere unbreathable. The entire operation turned out to be a fiasco in the end. However, they received almost 3,000 requests from all over the world. Mad or sane, the next heroes of humanity are already among us.