One of the fascinating things about fear is that despite its primary function – to help us get out of dangerous, physically threatening situations – many of us are still drawn to it. Just think of all the popular pastimes that are fueled by our attraction to fear – watching scary movies, bungee jumping, playing extreme sports and riding roller coasters are just a few.
This may be explained in part by the activity of chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, which carry signals between neurons in the brain and body. Some scientists believe thrill-seeking daredevils get more enjoyment out of such fear-inducing activities because their levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine increase more than normal during such experiences. The result can be a feeling of pleasure or euphoria.
Thrill seekers are clearly on one end of a spectrum of fearfulness. While they might be as close to fearless as anyone can be, those at the other end are extremely fearful. Most of us lie somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, enjoying the occasional thrilling experience.
Feeling Scared But Safe
Our brains may be unable to distinguish a difference between truly frightening experiences and those that people have purposefully designed to make us feel fearful. This opens the door for scary activities, such as horror movies, haunted houses and roller coasters, which allow us to experience fear without (hopefully) ever risking true physical danger. In 1949, renowned filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock wrote about the idea of safe thrill-seeking in an article entitled "The Enjoyment of Fear," which was published in Good Housekeeping:
For every person who seeks fear in the real or personal sense, millions seek it vicariously, in the theater and in the cinema. In darkened auditoriums they identify themselves with fictitious characters who are experiencing fear, and experience, themselves, the same fear sensations (the quickened pulse, the alternately dry and damp palm, etc.), but without paying the price.
Of course, in the case of extreme sports and extreme falling, there is a chance that practitioners will be harmed. For them, this can be part of the thrill.
- In June 2001, professional stuntman Dave Bailia bungee jumped approximately 6,000 feet from a helicopter over the Mohave Desert in California.
- Sascha Müller of Germany holds the record for most consecutive frontside ollies on a skateboard in halfpipe. In July 2005, he successfully executed 34.
- Jay Stokes jumped with a parachute 534 times from an altitude of 2,100 feet during a 24-hour period in November 2003.
- Jason Stinsmen holds the record for most back flips during a single leap on in-line skates. He pulled off a double back flip in January 2005.
- "Spiderman" Alain Robert has climbed more than 70 skyscrapers, including the world's tallest, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Still, fear remains a factor for many extreme athletes and some seem to have developed an appreciation for the emotion's role in their careers. After riding his bike off a cliff in Norway, doing a couple backflips and then parachuting down, famous bicycle stunt rider Mat Hoffman told Garrett Soden, author of Falling: How Our Greatest Fear Became Our Greatest Thrill - A History, that it was the scariest thing he'd ever done. "Fear gives you that extra energy that gets 110 percent out of you. If you didn't have fear, you wouldn't have that intense respect and intense concentration to make sure you don't mess up."