The Sensation Seeking Personality
September 29, 2010
When I tell people that I’ve taken up whitewater kayaking and show them pictures from my latest trip, they sometimes comment that maybe I'm turning into some kind of “adrenaline junkie”. Nothing could be further from the truth. In just about all aspects of my life I am a risk−averse person. What they don’t see is my gradual accumulation of skills to safely kayak in more challenging conditions, from practicing self−rescues in a warm swimming pool, to rolling in flat water, to playing in tidal races, surf and rock gardens -- a progression which took years! In that context, my move to river kayaking is a natural step.
A sea kayaker taking up river running finds himself in a familiar yet alien world. The gear is similar, but the water tastes and smells different. It’s much smaller, yet bigger. There are no barnacles or tides. The journey is linear, and the whole time there is a feeling of descending. Take the action of tidal races and coastal rock gardens, subtract the miles of paddling to get to the playspots and hit FAST FORWARD, and you get whitewater kayaking.
Maybe the biggest difference I've noticed between sea kayaking and whitewater kayaking is the personalities involved. You find a lot more people in whitewater who thrive on excitement and novelty. My whitewater kayak instructor was definitely one of them. A petite girl with long blonde river−washed dreadlocks, she had been on rivers since she was 16, worked as a raft and kayak guide during the summer and a snowboard instructor during the winter. She mixed that with rock climbing and mountain biking in her time off. This past summer she ran the Grand Canyon. She walked around everywhere barefoot, even on gravel roads -- while carrying a kayak! When we first met, even though the river was running high, the look on her sunburned face told me that there was absolutely nothing that could happen that day that could get her excited.
In whitewater culture the rapids and features all have catchy names, like (from what I remember on the Wenatchee River) Pipeline, Snowblind, Satan’s Eyeball, and Granny’s Panties (so named because it’s big and white). Navigating rapids mean you go to this or that side of a hole or that rock or bridge pillar. There are moves you need to make to avoid dangerous features or else you might get seriously hurt or maybe even killed. Good boat control and strong paddling are critical. Frequently, you get that “oh shit” feeling when you just miss falling into a big hole. That near−death experience is part of the fun!
Big wave trains are fun when you have a solid roll. On my first day on the river, my instructor started me out in a playboat that was low volume, tippy and very sensitive to trim. It was probably not the best boat to start a beginner out in but it taught me very quickly the importance of proper boat control. My stern would catch in the current if I leaned back a little too far, so I’d capsize a lot in those big wave trains, but just roll up. My instructor would look back at me with equanimity and simply nod approvingly, as if to say, “That’ll do, pig".”
Marvin Zuckerman has spent the last 20 years studying the sensation seeking personality trait, which refers to a diversity of risk-taking and sensation-seeking behaviors as well as the expressed intolerance of boredom. Sensation seeking, according to Zuckerman, is specifically defined as “the need for varied, novel, and complex sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experiences.” Studies show that people who participate in high risk sports, specifically, skydiving, mountain/rock climbing, rodeo, hang gliding, skiing, scuba diving, and, of course, whitewater kayaking, show a higher level of sensation seeking. One clue of a sensation seeking personality is that they have engaged in a number of these sports. The reason is that they quickly become habituated to one activity, which happens with any repeated stimulus, and move on to either greater challenges in the same sport or something different. According to Zuckerman's research, if you meet a multisport person like this you can reliably predict that they probably also enjoy (or have enjoyed) a lot of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, high-risk sexual behavior, stimulating foods, wild partying, motorcycles and speeding!
Where does this trait come from? Behavioral genetic studies on twins raised apart demonstrate that the heritability (i.e., proportion determined by genetics) is 60%, which is very high for a personality trait. Researches have correlated sensation seeking to the presence of the “long form” of the dopamine 4 receptor gene (DRD4). The dopamine system is central to brain mechanisms involved in reward and anticipation of reward, and cocaine addiction. Not surprisingly, reported side effects of taking exogenous dopamine (L−Dopa), include increases in impulsivity, compulsive gambling, and high−risk sexual behavior.
A fascinating possibility is that environnmental factors such as parasites can profoundly affect personality. The natural aversion to cats exhibited by rats fails when they are infected with toxoplasma. In fact, they even become sexually attracted to cat urine. The explanation for this is that toxoplasma evolved to highjack the rat brain so that rats would be eaten by cats, because toxoplasma can only reproduce in the cat gut. Interestingly, neuropsychological testing has demonstrated that humans infected with toxoplasma tend to me more impulsive and are 3−4 times more likely to be killed in accidents involving reckless speeding. Motorcycle riders also have a high probability of being infected by toxo.
You can find a copy of Zuckerman's personality test, the Sensation Seeking Scale, Form V here. (My score is low.)