Many people are cautious, some to the point of cowardice, the type who, in the words of the actor Victor Mature, "wouldn't walk up a wet step." Caution, within reason, is only natural. As Dr. Kenneth Kamler wrote in Surviving the Extremes
, "no animal in its right mind ever intentionally puts itself in danger by going somewhere it doesn't belong." Yet, as Kamler notes, human beings do go where they don't belong, for example into the 8,000 m (26,246 ft) "death zone" of Mount Everest. He suggests that human "emotional and spiritual imperatives" sometimes override the survival instinct. But in a recent article in the journal Neuron
, British researchers also identified a neurological basis for why people go where they don't belong. Human beings in their right mind do intentionally put themselves in danger. Our brains, it turns out, reward risk.
In an experiment carried out at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London, scientists found evidence that a primitive part of the brain has a role in making people adventurous, and indeed is activated when people choose unfamiliar options, despite the inherent risks of the unknown. This suggests an evolutionary advantage for those who explore. Measuring blood flow in the brain, the researchers found that the ventral striatum, which is involved in processing rewards through the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, is more active when subjects shunned the safer options to experience the unusual. This is called the "novelty bonus." Risk, it seems, is part of what it is to be human.
That is not the only explanation for risk: It turns out the urge to explore is also the product of prosperous societies, like our own. In his groundbreaking study "The Human Brain in Space Time," about the psychology of space travel, the neurologist W. Grey Walter refuted the accepted historical wisdom that exploration — with all its inherent risks — was a response to economic and military necessity. To the contrary, Walter pointed out that the home countries during great eras of exploration were often "hospitable, prosperous and plagued only by familiar woes."
During the Edwardian era, Britain was very prosperous relative to any time in its history, and it gave rise to discovery, including the first south-polar explorations of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. The 1950s was one of the most prosperous eras of history. In the United States, unprecedented numbers of families reached middle-class status. It is also the decade that gave birth to space exploration and saw the conquest of Mount Everest.
In developed countries, the subsequent six decades have been highly prosperous, the societies stable. Home has been a good place to be and, one would think, to stay. And yet those same comfortable, seemingly contented populations have produced large and growing numbers of people who have placed themselves at great individual risk, engaging in exploration, extreme sports, and adventure travel. Voluntary risk has never been more pervasive.
Two billionaires, tied at #261 on Forbes' 2009 list of the world's wealthiest people, with fortunes of $2.5 billion each, embody this point. Virgin companies founder Richard Branson and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté can afford lives of great luxury and comfort, yet Branson has repeatedly risked his life and come close at times to dying in attempts to set distance records in hot air balloons. Laliberté, meanwhile, is scheduled to blast off on September 30 aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, becoming the seventh civilian to fly alongside astronauts and cosmonauts on the Russian spaceships.
Risk-taking, it seems, is both part of our neurological makeup and an integral part of contemporary society. As Walter argued, "The urge to explore is a part of our nervous equipment....The human species is unstable in stable environments."
There certainly are emotional and spiritual imperatives, as Kamler said. Exploration is a way for people to gain insight not just into the world, but to better understand themselves. Without risk there is no gain, no gain in scientific knowledge, no gain either in understanding oneself.
One of the most intriguing manifestations of risk is a subject I have been studying for six years. People under great stress, sometimes at the very edge of death, have reported experiencing a sense of an incorporeal being beside them who encourages them to make one final effort to survive. The mysterious force has been explained as everything from hallucination to divine intervention. Recent neurological research suggests something else. This phenomenon is the subject of my new book, The Third Man Factor, and it has been experienced by scores of people, from Shackleton and Charles Lindbergh to polar explorer Ann Bancroft, Peter Hillary, diver Steffi Schwabe, and astronaut Jerry Linenger; in scores of places, too, from Cape Horn to Carstensz, from Earth Orbit to the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
Kamler, both a skilled medical specialist and skilled climber, has had many remarkable adventures — he has devoted himself to the study of endurance, how our bodies respond to extremes — so it is unsurprising that a Third Man was also among them.
While desperately trying to keep a dying Sherpa alive through a long night high on the slopes of Mount Everest, Kamler "gradually became aware of a third person in our freezing tent." This unseen being guided Kamler through his patient's treatment. "When morning came, I realized my patient would live, and that my mentor was gone." It was, for Kamler, an experience filled with "wonder and mysticism" — one that would never have happened had he stayed at his thriving medical practice in New York.
Risk is innate to human beings; it is so much a part of us that our brains dispense "novelty bonuses" to encourage us to take the more adventurous path. Risk is also powerfully influenced by the great wealth and comfort enjoyed by those of us lucky enough to live in the West. We are unstable in stable environments, and so we seek extreme and unusual environments, to gain insight into the nature of our planet, but also as a testing ground of the spirit.