Buzz! Inside The Minds Of Thrill-Seekers, Daredevils, And Adrenaline Junkies by Kenneth Carter

The Blurb On The Back:

Most of us crave new experiences and sensations.  Whether it’s our attraction to that new burger place or the latest gadget, newness tugs at us.  But what about those who can’t seem to get enough?  They jump out of planes, climb skyscrapers, and will anything (even poisonous pufferfish) … Prompting others to ask “what’s wrong” with them.  These are sensation-seekers and they crave intense experiences, despite physical or social risk.  They don’t have a death wish, but seemingly a need for an adrenaline rush, no matter what.

Buzz! describes the world of the high sensation-seeking personality in a way that we can all understand.  It explores the lifestyle, psychology, and neuroscience behind adrenaline junkies and daredevils.  This tendency, or compulsion, has a role in our culture.  But where is the line between healthy and unhealthy thrill-seeking?  THe minds of these adventurers are explained page by page.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

You can order BUZZ! INSIDE THE MINDS OF THRILL-SEEKERS, DAREDEVILS, AND ADRENALINE JUNKIES by Kenneth Carter from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Kenneth Carter is a clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Oxford College, Emory University in the USA.  This very easy to read book delves into the psychology of why some people engage in thrill-seeking behaviour (e.g. BASE jumping, eating exotic and potentially deadly foods or sky diving).  I found it fascinating and came away with more of an understanding for what drives people to do these things and what they gain from it.

I picked this up because my sister does a number of what I’d call thrill-seeking pursuits (she rides a motorbike, paraglides and does incredibly long walks) and although I’ll do some adrenaline events (I am partial to a zip wire or a rollercoaster as long as it’s not too extreme) I’ve never quite understood why so I was hoping this book would explain it to me.

Although Carter is an academic, this book is written in an engaging way that is very easy to follow, even when he goes into the neuroscience of how different parts of the brain work and respond to different stimulus.  Carter intersects academic research with interviews and conversations he’s had with people who engage in high sensation-seeking (HSS) behaviour, which helps to flesh out the points he’s making and works well to make the book more accessible to people like me who are interested in the topic but have no academic background in it.  I should also say that some of the stories shared by the people interviewed (e.g. a woman who couch-surfed her way around the world and a woman whose boyfriend put their plane into a stall in order to force her to pull it back out) drew a very strong “oh heck no” response from me.

The book begins by examining what sensation-seeking is (breaking it into constituent parts like sensation seeking, thrill and adventure-seeking, experience-seeking, disinhibition and boredom susceptibility) and includes a quiz so that you can determine where you fall on the scale.  Carter then goes onto examine to what extent HSS is genetically determined and to what extent it’s determined by nurture.  I found this particularly interesting because Carter gives a lot of information about biological elements and the importance that they play but also how personality and relationships can play a part in reinforcing it.

Carter goes onto explore how being HSS affects the everyday life of thrill-seeking individuals, including their ability to multi-task, their desire to have experiences, and their attitude towards food and spicy food (particularly interesting is how HSS individuals will often take a big bite out of something unfamiliar).  He then explores their leisure activities where I found the descriptions of adventure endurance races like Tough Mudder to be fascinating (and actually something I wouldn’t mind trying myself).  I found the sections where Carter explores the attitude such people have to injury to be interesting and he makes good points about risk compensation and how safety can make people complacent.  Also interesting is how HSS people describe going into a zone when they’re doing something dangerous and also how they overcome their fear when something bad has happened to them before.  Carter disproves the notion both that people undertake dangerous activities for social media fame or for the adrenaline hit (indeed most HSS individuals talk about adrenaline as something they dislike) and instead emphasises how people do it to test themselves and prove their endurance and test their limits.

For me one of the most interesting chapters was on the impact that HSS behaviour has on the relationships that such individuals have.  Carter really goes into how it can affect interactions and behaviour, including the fact that such individuals do not thrive well when in situations that lack stimulation but at the same time are more likely to seek friends outside their culture/social group.  Carter delves into the research on love and emotional intelligence here and moves onto looking at how it impacts on parenting, which in turn can result in children adopting HSS behaviours and activities.

Also fascinating is the chapter where Carter looks at the types of work that HSS individuals undertake.  I was surprised that HSS individuals are not necessarily the best fit for emergency medicine and that some activities you think would be a good fit (e.g. police work, firefighting) aren’t because of the long stretches of no activity.  I would have been interested to see more on the issues that affect people who have been in high HSS/risky professions (e.g. the army) when they transition back into civil life.  Carter does have one case study here of a man who went from the military to working with the homeless and it’s interesting to see how being rooted in an activity that helps people assisted in making the transition.

The chapter where Carter looks at the dark side of HSS behaviour didn’t contain any real surprises because much of it is foreseeable if you’re looking at the flip side of the points raised in the earlier chapters.  The way that HSS people engage in riskier behaviour, aggression and addiction (whether substance abuse or behavioural addictive behaviours) is neatly set out though.

Carter wraps up by considering whether HSS is a super power or a super problem, precisely setting out the advantages and disadvantages.  I was particularly interested in the section examining how being HSS can assist in dealing with trauma and fear and also how people who do it like to focus on how they can use that to protect people (although I would have liked a bit more on how that can be abused).

The book has a number of appendices, including one giving learning objectives and discussion topics for psychology students and more detailed tests that you can do to assess your own propensity for thrill-seeking behaviour.  

All in all, I did come away from the book feeling that I understood a bit more of why people like my sister engage in what I see as dangerous activities and what they gain from it.  I was also pleasantly surprised to realise that maybe I’m not such a low sensation seeking person as I initially thought I was and identified a couple of areas where I’d be open to going outside my comfort zone.  Ultimately, this is a really good read if you’re interested in understanding the psychology of thrill-seeking or want to know a bit more about human nature and I will definitely be checking out Carter’s other work on the strength of this. 

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