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The Psychology of Roller Coasters

Summers here and it's time to go to the theme park and hop on some roller coasters. But why do we endure the high temps, searing black top, long lines and crying kids?

It all can be boiled down to sensation seeking, which is the tendency to enjoy novel and varied experiences. Think of riding a roller coaster like a mini-bungee jump or sky dive. It's the same physiological and psychological reactions at play, albeit on a much smaller scale and with a much smaller chance of injury. It's not dissimilar to watching a horror movie either. After all, riding a roller coaster has the same effect of raising one's heart rate, breathing rate and it even releases glucose. If of these symptoms sound familiar it's no wonder. Collectively they're known as the "fight or flight" response.

Those who enjoy bungee jumping and sky diving also get a high from the release of endorphins, which can lead to a feeling of raised awareness, wakefulness and general well-being. The act also has the effect of releasing cortisol in the blood, which part of the body's reaction to stress or, in this case, eustress, which is the world for positive stress.

It all sounds pretty simple - roller coasters, as well as more intense thrill-seeking behavior, makes you feel good by freaking you out. But this doesn't apply to everyone. The answer as to why could lie with dopamine, which can be linked to a huge variety of tendencies in humans. People people who have higher levels of dopamine may be more likely to engage in sensation seeking behavior.

But that isn't the end of the story. Age plays a factor as well. Generally, people stay away from sensation seeking behaviors as they get older, with their interest in risky behaviors having peaked in early adulthood. Perhaps it's an instinctual response to keeping yourself safe. After all if we're spiking our heart rates by engaging in certain acts it makes sense that the mechanism that causes us to do so would eventually switch itself off.

Right now, researchers don't know conclusively why we ride roller coasters but they do have a pretty good idea of what's at play. At the very least we can all have a good time helping them figure it out.

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