‘There is no future, no past’ - inside the mind of an adrenaline seeker

Georgina Lavers
Georgina Lavers

What makes adrenaline devotees, from base jumpers to racecar drivers, seek out their next thrill? Georgina Lavers investigates the science and psychology behind their extreme wiring

BASE jumping was given its name for the type of object that a jumper, on any given day, might decide to throw themselves off from. The acronym covers “buildings”; “antennae” (an uninhabited tower, such as an aerial mast); something called a “span”, which can be a bridge or an arch; and “earth” ­– usually a cliff, but any kind of natural formation.

It was the latter Fred Fugen decided to jump from in May this year. Earth, this time, was a mountain in Annecy not far from Chamonix in France (Fugen gives no more specifics; jumpers are notoriously secretive about their spots).

The morning of the jump finds Fugen checking the weather obsessively on his phone. He must check and recheck the direction and intensity of the wind; the chance of rain; cloud or fog conditions: all are vital to land safely.

The weather answered his question on the specific jump spot, so, after texting his friend, the pair set off for a two-hour hike to the top of the mountain. With his feet just over the edge of a 2,050-metre drop, ready to hit speeds of 200km/h, Fugen checked his pack one last time, nodded to his friend – and flew.

Daniel Hernan-Perez Aguilera is 45 years old and comes from Spain. Now working part-time as an instructor for Skydive Dubai alongside Fugen, he has consistently sought out extreme experiences throughout his life: from joining the army at 18 as a paratrooper, to working as a firefighter for his regular day job.

“It’s a state of extreme mental perception that you can only experience with these types of activities,” he says. “You’re so connected to the present – there is no future, there is no past. It’s about finding that moment when you are close to death, close to the basic part of your being.”

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Sensation seeking can be a useful evolutionary tool

Aguilera admits that he consciously seeks out activities that will raise the heart rate in both his work and his hobbies; a phenomenon that seems common among adrenaline seekers.

“Every time there is something I can do that will thrill me, I’ll do it straight away,” says Ed Jones, a racing driver. Born in the UAE, the 20-year-old started karting – a popular pastime in the emirate – at age 4.  

He sees a similarity in his fellow adrenaline seekers that opposes the popular perception of them being reckless daredevils.

“In my opinion, the biggest part of these sports is the mental aspect of it. I feel like most successful people in a dangerous sport, in everyday life – are actually really calm,” he says.

“A lot of people would describe me as quiet, but I see the same attributes in the cage fighters I know. The people that lose it mentally – they never do well.”

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Wingsuiters in Skydive Dubai's Desert Campus dropzone

Dr Michael Bardo, a neuroscientist at the University of Kentucky, says the answer to adrenaline seeking is a mixture of genetic and learned behaviour. “We don’t have an absolute answer, but the evidence we have so far is that adrenaline seeking is partly genetic and partly environmentally induced – an interaction between genes and environment – and that’s not really all that surprising.”

So what is the incentive to keep seeking this adrenaline reaction? What did Aguilera’s body go through as he threw himself off that mountain?

Under severe pressure, the nervous system gears up the body for constant and vigorous action. The adrenal gland sends huge amounts of cortisol and adrenaline into the blood stream, which makes blood pressure swell and the heart race. The end result is a massive flood of oxygen and energy to the muscles – a rush that can become addictive.

“From the first jump I was totally hooked on the sensation, the adrenaline,” admits Aguilera. “When people ask me I always tell them that I love to scare myself.”

It’s about finding that moment when you are close to death, close to the basic part of your being

Daniel Hernan-Perez Aguilera, wingsuiter

Andrew Mills is a rider of the Cresta Run: a three-quarter mile half-pipe of sheer ice that riders navigate head-first on a toboggan. Riders can expect to reach speeds of up to 130km/h on its hairpin bends. “In my early years, when I had less experience and more raw competitiveness, I would work myself into a frenzy,” he says.

With time, though, mental preparation and visualisation of the course helped him shape his stress into something far more valuable.

“I will have visualised the run 3 or 4 times, within just a minute or two of entering the starting box,” he says. “This brings the knowledge and reassurance that I have planned my ride, and when it goes well… I can be in the box in a state of almost meditative calmness.”

Sandrine Timmerman is an operations manager at Skydive Dubai. An experienced skydiver with 15 years’ experience and nearly 8,000 jumps under her belt, she pinpoints the physical markers she sees in first-time jumpers.

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Research has shown that 'sensation seekers' are more likely to engage in high-risk sports

“Usually people are really excited already the night before, so they don’t sleep well and then they probably skip breakfast, which is a big mistake because they’re going to need more calories to burn for the adrenaline and the stress,” she says.

“Once we start doing the briefing with them, we usually realise they’re only listening to half of what we say and they don’t remember the other half; they also start getting confused and sweating, or shivering.”

Dr Bardo describes this pursuit of novelty as “sensation seeking”, and he and his research team use high and low ‘sensation seekers’ as a variable among individuals, to look at it as a predictor of risky behaviour. The more prone to sensation seeking the individual is, the more likely that they will engage in risky behaviours.

However, he is not against the behaviour, pointing out its utility in the wild. “If you look at primates in the wild that are organised into social groups, the high risk takers in the troop of monkeys are the ones walking along the plain, looking for new food sources,” he explains. “They may be taking risks but ones that are beneficial to the survival of the population as a whole.”

In my early years, when I had less experience and more raw competitiveness, I would work myself into a frenzy

Andrew Mills, Cresta Run rider

The neuroscientist has also used his research to combat drug addiction in individuals by replacing the stimulants they are used to getting chemically with more natural forms of stimulation, such as extreme sports.

In a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychologists from the University of Kentucky and Purdue University in Indiana recounted recruiting two sets of volunteers, high or low sensation seekers, based on their responses to questionnaires.

They were then shown a variety of photographs, from mundane scenes – such as items of food – to very emotional or disturbing images, while having their brains scanned with functional MRI (fMRI).

The resulting images showed that when high-sensation seekers viewed the emotional images, there was increased activity in the area of the brain known as the insula – which is typically active during addictive behaviours, such as craving cigarettes.

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BASE jumping off of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

But when low-sensation seekers looked at the same images, there was increased activity in a different area of the brain – an area that is believed to play a role in emotion and its regulation.

Put simply, when viewing intense images the brains of high-sensation seekers were less likely to regulate their emotions to the images.

“Individuals high in sensation seeking not only are strongly activated by exciting, thrilling and potentially dangerous activities, but also may be less likely than other people to inhibit or appropriately regulate that activation,” the authors concluded.
Whether this type of person can be clearly demarcated, both Aguilera and Timmerman are absolute in their response to the contrary. “In skydiving, I see an immensely diverse set of people,” says Timmerman. “You have all kinds of profiles: some who are young, some who are older, you have some really disciplined people, and some who are not so disciplined.”

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Daniel Hernan-Perez Aguilera takes a break during a jump

For Jones, there is one thread of commonality running through the veins of adrenaline seekers: a sort of mental shield that blocks them from the reality of their situation.

It is a thread that perhaps verifies the findings of Bardo and other researchers raring to find that secret spot in the brain that drives humans to this extreme state of being.

“The worst thing you can do when you drive is to look at the walls,” Jones says of the racetrack. 

“As soon as you start to think realistically about what you’re doing is when you start to slow down. You have to take out the practical part of your mind – and throw it to one side.”