18 May Are You the Adventurous Type? Thank—or Blame—Your Genes
In the 1951 movie The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, there’s a scene where the two are forced to run some whitewater rapids in a small boat. Bogart, who plays Charlie Allnut, a steamer captain with plenty of experience, fears that the wild ride will be a little too much for the unworldly and somewhat-sheltered Hepburn, who portrays a missionary. When it’s all over, he asks her how she liked it. A very flushed and excited Hepburn replies, “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating! Now that I’ve had a taste of it, I don’t wonder you love boating, Mr. Allnut.”
The clip illustrates what researchers are now finding in the lab: a proclivity for adventure isn’t just the result of a person’s environment, livelihood or necessary experience with it—it’s found in our genes. And more than that, the tendency to want to take risks just may have had an evolutionary advantage. Those of us who were genetically inclined to try something new or seek out greener pastures were largely responsible for pushing humankind forward.
Getting a mental charge from adventure
Back in the 1960s, a University of Delaware psychologist named Marvin Zuckerman was conducting some sensory-deprivation research tests. He happened to notice that the volunteers who came into his lab tended to be carrying motorcycle helmets. Deducing from this that there might be a personality type—linked to heredity—that sought thrills, he developed a survey questionnaire to test his hypothesis.
Dr. Zuckerman (and later researchers) discovered that while we all fall somewhere on the spectrum of what he coined “sensation-seeking,” about 10 percent of us could be described as “high-risk-taking.” This small, thrill-seeker segment of the population tends to be curious, intelligent and open-minded. They are the type of people who invent new sports, perform high-stakes surgery or run for office. They were also the people more likely to crack their skulls open or become drug addicts.
Today, 50 years later, neuroscientists are making more headway into the science of risk. Using a new generation of questionnaires and improved technology, such as radioactive imaging and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers have shown that those with a genetic thirst for adventure achieve more intense feelings of pleasure from risky experiences. This inclination to be able to reach a heightened mood is a phenomenon that has long been observed in mountain climbers, leading to speculation of a link between the experience of wild places and a strong spiritual awareness.
For example, according to a 2008 article by Dave Pickford on planetFear.com, in 1865 mountain climber Edward Whymper “saw brocken spectres (enlarged projections of a person’s shadow on a cloud) while descending the Matterhorn,” after four of his companions fell to their deaths. And, says Pickford, wilderness writer and adventurer Peter Matthiessen described a “sense of the transformative power of the high mountain environment” in his work.
So, while it was evolutionarily adaptive for some individuals of our species to take risks, it was also adaptive for them to get charged up while doing so.
Receiving a creative boost from international travels
Not only do people with what could be called an “adventure gene” achieve a heightened mood and sense of spirituality from new explorations, any of us undertaking similar exploits will likely become more creative.
In general, creativity is related to neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Recently, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun examining what many have observed anecdotally: that spending time abroad may have the potential to affect mental change. Neural pathways are influenced by environment and habit, meaning they’re sensitive to changes: new languages, sensations, sights, smells, sounds and tastes can spark different synapses in the brain, with the potential to revitalize the mind.
Professor Adam Galinsky of the Columbia Business School, and author of several studies on the connection between creativity and international travel, states that foreign experiences increase both cognitive flexibility and depth and integration of thoughts. Cognitive flexibility is the mind’s ability to jump between different ideas, a key component of creativity. However, it’s not just about being abroad: what’s key is multicultural engagement, immersion and adaptation. A traveler who partakes in the local culture will receive more of a creative boost than someone who goes abroad but doesn’t interact with the region’s environment.
It seems that whether or not you inherited a propensity for risk-taking, going on a travel adventure can expand your mind, enhance your spiritual welfare and boost your creativity. Not many other activities can claim the same.
Have you ever experienced a heightened mood or spiritual awakening in a wild place? Did you ever feel an increased sense of creativity after taking a trip?
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,
Latest posts by Candice Gaukel Andrews (see all)
- 10 Reasons Why a Dose of Fear Is Good for You - December 13, 2017
- Extinction Tourism: Seeing Wild Animals Before They’re Gone - November 8, 2017
- The Travel Cycle’s Four Stages—Plus One - October 18, 2017