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VIDEO Hard-wired – 1:45

Exploring the evolutionary roots of thrill-seeking behavior

VIDEO Hard-wired – 1:45

Exploring the evolutionary roots of thrill-seeking behavior

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Clint Kugler felt it while climbing 18,000 feet up the side of Volcan Cayambe in Ecuador. Zach Fackrell recognized it as he came face-to-face with a 19-foot shark off the coast of Fiji. It struck Neil Shea as he interviewed a traditional healer in a remote region of Africa, and James Lee is trying to get back to it by wakeboarding at 40 miles an hour. Though recognized in wildly different settings, the feeling was always the same: the pay-off of a thrill.


The Experience-Seeker—Zach Fackrell

Zach Fackrell has explored the British Virgin Islands several times. Photo by Zach Fackrell

Zach Fackrell attempted to follow the usual career path of a photographer. In his early 20s he started building a wedding- and event-photography business near his home in Salt Lake City, Utah. He’d spend his free time camping in the mountains and taking off on the occasional overseas adventure, but every time he returned home, he felt the itch to get back out there.

Once based exclusively in Utah, he's now on the road more often than he's home. Photo by Josh Sutton

That feeling has come to define him. As he approaches 30, he has carved out a life in constant pursuit of new experiences. He funds his adventures by capturing photos and videos of exotic destinations for travel and lifestyle companies—and by using those jobs to find personal adventures: a day off in Australia dedicated to scuba diving or a skydive between assignments in Switzerland. He particularly loves being underwater, where every experience seems new.

Fackrell is what experts define as an experience-seeker. All four subtypes on the Sensation-Seeking scale show elements of each – an experience-seeker is often also susceptible to boredom, too; those in the disinhibition subtype often also crave adventure—but for Fackrell the need for new experiences is paramount.

Fackrell is happiest in the water, where he never knows what to expect. Photo by Zach Fackrell

During a day off during a work trip to Fiji, Fackrell went diving with a group of friends. A local guide steered them to an amphitheater of coral, then hovered in the center with a bin full of chum. Soon enough, the sharks arrived.

It was a risky situation, but risk is not what defined the thrill for Fackrell: It was having the experience for the first time, a synching of mind and body that happens for him when he encounters something entirely new.

“It was anticipation, the anxiousness—I knew this was going to be an amazing moment. It wasn’t a hesitation or a fear,” he says. “I was stoked and ready for it. You are aware that what you’re experiencing is going to be an incredible memory forever.”

The following year in Fiji, Fackrell scheduled a scuba trip in a feeding zone known for tiger sharks. “It was kind of murky,” he says. “We didn’t have super-clear visibility, but the instructor tapped on his tank to show us where it was.” “It” was a 19-foot tiger shark, swimming right beside them. His only thought, he says, was, “Finally, we’re seeing it.”

This April he spent five days on safari in Kenya and hiked through Patagonia. In Australia he came face-to-face in with a species of bug once thought to be extinct. Holding the bug wasn’t enough—Fackrell put it on his face and let it crawl into his ear.

“I have been blessed to travel a ton,” he says, listing a few of the 45 countries he’s visited. “It’s something about a new place. When you’re on a trip and everything is new from the moment you wake up … every second of that day is new. That’s something that I’ve identified that I really like. Not having a routine, not knowing what’s going to come next.”

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The adventure seeker—Clint Kugler

The toe of the glacier on Volcan Cayambe, Ecuador Photo by Michael Freedman

Clint Kugler has been seeking out adventures for as long as he can remember. “The first time I went scuba diving in the ocean,” he says, “I plunged underwater, and I realized I wasn’t going back up for the next minute or two. There was a rush there. I remember a very visceral response.”

It wasn’t so much the act of scuba diving that gave him the rush, he says. Instead, it was the understanding of where he was. “Everything you know about how your body relates to the environment has changed,” he says. “We’re not supposed to stay underwater like that.”

Clint Kugler and his party on the Volcan Cayambe expedition Photo by Bob Strode

What started in the depths of the ocean has since taken him to the highest peaks in the world, all in an attempt to recapture that feeling. Kugler, 28, is a hedge-fund analyst based in New York. Most of his days are dedicated to researching investment opportunities for the fund, a job that he says satisfies his deep curiosity. In his free time, though, he’s as far from an office as possible. His most recent adventure took him to the top of Volcan Cayambe in Ecuador. “There are times when I’m climbing I think the same thing: Human beings aren’t supposed to be here,” he says.

Kugler is what researchers identify as a thrill- and adventure-seeking subtype on the Sensation-Seeking Scale. Thrill- and adventure-seekers need the kind of physical activity that leads to a sense of exhilaration. They don’t necessarily need these thrills on a daily basis, but there is an undeniable need to experience them when possible.

On Cayambe, his team started its summit-day climb around midnight in order to get ahead of the other teams. He lost sight of their headlamps at around 17,000 feet. “I looked back and realized there were no birds, no plants. There were no mountain goats. It was just snow and ice and glacier,” he says. “That is really disorienting.” Disorientation is part of what produces a thrill. The rest is about prevailing through it and surviving.

When Kugler’s team reached the summit, he had not yet reached peak thrill. The summit is always amazing, he says, but he spends only 20 or 30 minutes at the top. The real work for him—and and therefore the adventure, the thrill—comes on the way down.

“Everybody assumes that going up is the hardest, but descending is where I’ve had more tricky moments and close calls,” he says. By the time he starts descending, he’s been awake for 24-36 hours. He’s tired, the downhill slope adds to the level of difficulty, and the sun has started to melt the ice under his feet: “Ice that’s really solid at 3 a.m. is more slippery or wet at 10 or 11 a.m.”

Kugler says his favorite part of any climb is the descent. Photos by Michael Freedman (left) and Dana Marie Buchanan (right)

If there’s a crevasse that’s too big to circumvent or jump across, he stretches a ladder across it. “The first time I walked across a ladder on a crevasse, there was a sensation where I was hyperaware,” he says. “If you follow the process and do something well and master the skill, you’re able to enjoy that activity, get those thrills, see a new part of the world, and do it safely.”

Next up for Kugler is the Matterhorn, in the Alps between Switzerland and Italy. He’s focusing on that climb over the classic Mt. Everest, he says, because the Matterhorn requires more technical ability than expedition-survival skills. “I’m not just constantly looking for a risk or to do something dangerous,” he says. “But when you’re up there, you’re really proud of the fact that you can do exciting and daring things at the same time.”

He’ll get to Everest, he says, and many other peaks after that. For people like Kugler, life is all about adventure, whether it’s deep in the ocean or on top of the world.

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The boredom-fighter—James Lee

James Lee heads to New Jersey's Lake Hopatcong on most summer weekeneds. Photo by Mat Rick

For James Lee, “Every hour is different. I don't know what city I'm going to be in, I don't know what airport I'm going to be in, and I'm always dealing with different people and different personalities.”

He made his life this way. Lee recognized early on that he is highly susceptible to boredom. He pursued a career in investment banking because he wanted a life of constant change. Over the last decade, it’s more than delivered on this need—and yet Lee still finds himself seeking additional distractions at every free moment.

Wakeboarding is the latest in Lee's long line of hobbies. Photo by Mat Rick

Lee is classified as a “boredom susceptibility subtype” on the Sensation-Seeking Scale, which experts developed from a personality test. Those in this category pursue novelty in any and every form.

Early in Lee’s life it was martial arts, skateboarding, and skiing. To overcome his fear of heights, he’d climb onto the roof of his family’s one-story house and stare out over the edge. He started a breakdancing club while studying at Harvard University, for the challenge of the dance and the novelty of performing.

Now that he’s in his 30s, it’s wakeboarding. “It was really hard [at first],” he says. “After three or four tries, by the time I was able to finally get up on top of the water, that was the coolest sensation ever.”

The exhilaration came not from the physical effort required to stay upright, he says, but from seeing and experiencing the world in a new way—and in this case, being pulled by a boat at 40 miles per hour.

“There’s something to be said for being on top of something fluid, like water,” Lee says. “It’s kind of like skydiving for the first time. Your brain doesn’t know how to process what you’re looking at down there.”

Now that he’s mastered the art of standing up on the board, he’s setting his sights on catching major air. He can jump a bit now, he says, but he wants to make the 8- to 10-foot leaps that professionals can do.

“It involves not being afraid when you approach the wake,” he says. “When you don’t land right, it’s the equivalent of hitting a bunch of bricks. There’s an element of fear there that makes it so much better when you land.”

Lee's goal is to someday catch major air. Photo by Mat Rick

The landing, for Lee, is thrilling. It’s this feeling, and the feeling evoked by similar pursuits and constant work travel, that saves him from ever-looming boredom.

“The concept of time standing still happens in those split seconds when you land that ridiculous jump or even when you’re skiing when you jump off of a cliff and you clear it and you’re not hurt,” he says. “Nothing else in the world matters more than what you are doing in that second.”

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The inhibition-challenger—Neil Shea

Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, Madagascar. Photo by National Geographic

Writing for National Geographic takes 41-year-old Neil Shea to distant, wildly divergent places: caves under the Mexican desert full of crystals the size of buses; the edges of the North Pole, where polar bears still roam amongst shattering sea ice; the war zones of the Middle East. That variety affords him the same thrills that others seek, but for Shea the payoff comes from the people he meets in these remote destinations.

“I started out, like a lot of us do, thinking that I just wanted to have fun adventures and write about them,” Shea says. “Pretty quickly, I realized that was fun and thrilling, but it was not actually deeply satisfying. It was something that was sort of like a flash, and then it was over. It was good, but I wanted some kind of a deeper meaning to the work.”

Shea meets with local residents while reporting in Kenya’s Lake Turkana region. Photo by National Geographic

He has found that meaning in the conversations he has with people he would otherwise likely never have the chance to meet, as well as in sharing their stories with the world and seeing the response.

“Many stories have been told before—at least in part—so we’re always looking for new or better ways to tell them,” he says. “When you find that way, maybe that person you interview, when you find a new way to reveal something amazing to people, that is also an incredible thrill.”

Shea is what researchers identify as the “disinhibition subtype” on the Sensation-Seeking Scale. Those in this subtype pursue unique forms of social engagement, like the interviews that Shea conducts around the world.

Shea has found that drawing helps root his subjects more deeply in his mind. These are his sketches from a reporting trip to Ethiopia and Kenya. Photo by National Geographic

“When I have a really great interview with a scientist or an explorer or a military expert, when I learn something new, I feel completely energized,” he says. “It’s thrilling. I’m seeing the world again with fresh eyes.”

In 2010, he spent about three months living among tribes in the deep bush of Ethiopia. Eventually, he became a familiar presence, and the locals opened up to him. One was a medicine man.

“He was sort of a spiritual medium in the village, and one of his jobs was to protect the people from crocodiles in the river,” Shea recalls. “It was a serious job, since river water was needed daily for cooking. Every full moon, he would perform a ritual in which he spoke to the crocodiles and magically sort of showed them that this territory was for humans only.”

The man took Shea to the riverbank, cut boughs from a young tree, did a chant, spoke to the crocodiles, and laid the boughs in the river. He told Shea that no one had ever been taken by a crocodile at that part of the riverbank. He also said he had never shown this ritual to anyone before.

For Shea, the moment was magical, about far more than the personal connection. It was, he says, getting a seat at the edge of a human drama—and then enjoying the thrill of giving it to the world.

In 2005 he reported his first Iraq war story for National Geographic, and it hit a chord with readers, especially the ones he wrote about. Soldiers and Marines wrote to say he had captured their experience and got the story right, and readers thanked him for giving them a new insight into what the war was like. “We felt as though we had really connected with our audience and given them something meaningful,” he says.

Shea continues to pursue opportunities to meet others around the world. Whether he’s interviewing people in the Paris underground or teaching a writing course in Tennessee, the ultimate thrill for Shea is about removing barriers, in himself and between himself and others, so he can connect to the world through their stories.

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“It’s like having superpowers for a very brief time,” says Margaret King, Ph.D., director of the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia.

The rush starts in the amygdala, a bundle of neurons at the base of the brain responsible for assessing the unknown. In a thrill-seeking situation—which almost always poses some kind of risk, whether perceived or real—the amygdala registers that risk, then releases a combination of dopamine, adrenaline, endorphins, and other chemicals in order to protect the body against it. How much of each is released depends on the perceived level of risk. At the peak, every bodily function, chemical brain reaction, and sensory input is hyper-focused on the experience.

Every person’s brain assesses unknown situations differently: Those with thinner sections of gray matter, for example, tend to perceive less of a threat and therefore seek greater thrills. No matter what type of thrill a person is seeking, the reaction triggers an increase in testosterone. Vision narrows. Adrenaline shoots into the body, which increases heart rate. With the heart beating faster, we get more oxygen. The body redirects oxygen to the brain as fast as it can. The feeling often lasts less than 60 seconds, and the immediate aftermath is another flood of mood-boosting chemicals. This is what leads thrill-seekers to chase the process again and again.

The Chemistry Behind The Thrill

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    The amygdala releases a combination of chemicals that includes adrenaline, dopamine, and endorphins. Dopamine has many functions in the brain, including telling the brain that there is a potential reward if this threat is overcome.

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    As the response intensifies, the brain sends testosterone streaming into the body. This boosts strength, giving the person a better chance of success.

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    Adrenaline also shoots into the body, which increases heart rate.

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    With the heart beating faster, the brain and muscles gets more oxygen. The body reroutes this oxygen to the brain as fast as it can.

“It has a biological basis and high heritability, which suggests that it’s coded in our genes and our nervous system,” says psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, Ph.D. Now a professor emeritus at the University of Delaware, Zuckerman started studying the field in the 1960s. “Our early ancestors survived on hunting and food gathering,” he explains. “Hunting was one of the early expressions of sensation-seeking, particularly when they began to hunt large mammals where there's a high risk involved.” High-altitude climbing and wakeboarding today produce the same chemical reaction in the brain as fighting a woolly mammoth with a spear likely produced in 15,000 B.C. Back then it was a matter of survival. In today's far safer world, it's a matter of pleasure.

By the 1970s Zuckerman had created a personality survey that identifies four types of sensation seekers: people looking for adventure, people seeking new experiences, people looking for ways to lose inhibitions, and people susceptible to boredom. People looking for adventure are likely to pursue physical challenges such as skydiving or base-jumping. People seeking new experiences often visit exotic places or try unfamiliar foods. People seeking to lose inhibitions thrive on making social connections with new people, while people susceptible to boredom often crave novelty. Most people fall into multiple categories, Zuckerman showed, but the pay-off is the same.

“You realize everything else in the world is shut out, and a calming sensation comes in. It’s zen,“ says James Lee. “It’s real. It’s very real.“

VIDEO Hard-wired – 1:45

Exploring the evolutionary roots of thrill-seeking behavior

In addition to identifying the four subtypes, researchers also developed what they call the “Sensation-Seeking Scale”. High-sensation seekers spend their lives pursuing this fleeting feeling. Low-sensation seekers actively avoid thrills and new experiences. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of this scale, which correlates to certain aspects of brain makeup and chemistry as well as individual tolerance for exhilaration.

This tolerance develops as brain and body begin to anticipate that we will survive whatever we have survived in the past, which deprives similar experiences of their thrill and demands a new and greater challenge to achieve the same sensation. Factors that influence an individual’s tolerance include the amount of white and grey matter in the brain and mutations in certain genes. Researchers suspect variations in dopamine receptors are another factor, but the research is preliminary.

No matter what type of thrill a person seeks, part of the pleasure comes from the simple act of concentrating fully on a single task, according to the work of Dr. Seymour Epstein, late professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts. “It makes you feel very alive to be so scared,” he told the New York Times. “When you react to something that demands your full attention so forcefully, all your senses engage.

“After you take the plunge there's an immense relief and sense of well-being in facing a fear that doesn't materialize,” he adds. That’s the payoff sensation Fackrell and Lee describe as time standing still.

King and her colleague Jamie O’Boyle have found similar results while researching the appeal of rollercoasters. According to their findings, the peak moment of exhilaration comes from experiencing a risk you know will be survived. On a rollercoaster, logic tells us we will be safe, but our bodies and brains respond to more than logic, and as the fear response overpowers intellect, we become disoriented. Our bodies turn all energy to their survival systems, halting everything else. At the end of the rollercoaster ride—or the high-altitude hike, or a close encounter with a tiger shark—we experience the moment of survival as a thrill.

For high-sensation thrill-seekers it might take being all alone in the world at 18,000 feet before dawn to feel the disorientation that leads to exhilaration. For many of us, being strapped into a rollercoaster is disorienting enough to produce that moment. In many ways, chasing thrills is similar to chasing a drug-induced burst of feeling. “You’re high,” O’Boyle says. “We know it’s a high because of the crash afterward, when it wears off.”

Thrill-seeking is behavior unique to humans. Mammals in the wild don’t seek out challenges just for the sport of it. We humans, on the other hand, keep chasing ever more exciting thrills because, as O’Boyle puts it, “It’s a really significant piece of who we are as humans. As a memory, it comes back as the joy of realization of what it really means to be alive, even for only a minute or two.”


What's your sensation-seeking subtype?

For each question, please indicate which of the choices most describes your likes or the way you feel. When it is hard to choose, select the option that describes you best or that you dislike the least.

This quiz was adapted from Dr. Marvin Zuckerman’s Sensation Seeking Scale Form V. While most people exhibit characteristics spanning across all 4 sensation-seeking subtypes, this quiz is designed to show you which subtype(s) you lean toward most.

Select One:

Choice OneI like to explore a strange city or section of town by myself, even if it means getting lost

Choice TwoI prefer a guide when I am in a place I don’t know well


boredom fighter: []

inhibition challenger: []

experience seeker: []

adventure seeker: []


Choice OneI enjoy spending time in the familiar surroundings of home

Choice TwoI get very restless if I have to stay around home for any length of time


Choice OneThe essence of good art is in its clarity, symmetry of form and harmony of colors

Choice TwoI often find beauty in the “clashing” colors and irregular forms of modern paintings


Choice OneI often wish I could be a mountain climber

Choice TwoI can’t understand people who risk their necks climbing mountains


Choice OneI like parties where people let loose

Choice TwoI prefer quiet parties with good conversation


Choice OneWhen I can predict almost everything a person will do and say, I consider them uninteresting

Choice TwoI dislike people who do or say things just to shock or upset others


Choice OneEven if I had the money, I would not travel widely and frequently for pleasure

Choice TwoI could see myself seeking pleasure by frequently traveling around the world


Choice OneI prefer the surface of the water to the depths

Choice TwoI would like to go scuba diving


Choice OneI get bored seeing the same old faces

Choice TwoI like the comfortable familiarity of everyday friends


Choice OneI like to try new foods that I have never tasted before

Choice TwoI order the dishes with which I am familiar, so as to avoid disappointment and unpleasantness


Choice OneI am not interested in experience for its own sake

Choice TwoI like to have new and exciting experiences and sensations even if they are a little unconventional


Choice OneI would not like to learn to fly an airplane

Choice TwoI would like to learn to fly an airplane


Click to reveal your type