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The Daredevil Personality: Is it Genetic?

The Daredevil Personality: Is it Genetic?

Now that the Winter Olympics have come to an end, many are left wondering how extreme sports athletes manage to perform those unbelievable tricks that leave the rest of us in awe. But a more intriguing question to ask is not how they do it – but why? Physics can explain the mechanics of every flip, spin and jump, but the human mind is much more difficult to explain. What exactly is it that gives some of us a personality that’s always ready to leap off of an icy cliff?

The Daredevil Personality

Some of us are born daredevils. Parents and scientists have believed for a long time now that a “sensation seeking” personality, as it’s called in psychological terms, has a specific genetic component. A 2006 study that examined risky behavior in pairs of twins found that this thrill-seeking personality type was far too common in the pairs of twins than could be explained by only environmental factors. In most cases, if one twin tended to seek out risky experiences, the other was quite likely to do so as well, despite outside influences.

Research has shown that these thrill-seekers definitely have a genetic component that leads to the urge to do crazy things, like attempting a near-impossible flip during the Olympic finals. However, the exact genes (or more specifically, the tiny portions of DNA within the genes) that lead someone to perform triple back flips off a mountain have yet to be pinpointed.

The Neurotransmitter, Dopamine

For many years, researchers assumed that a person’s tendency to gravitate towards risky behavior had to do with the levels of, or response to, the neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Dopamine naturally occurs in the brain and has to do with feelings of gratification, satisfaction and pleasure. Scientists assumed that people who are drawn to extreme sports must process dopamine differently than the rest of us. However, studies that compared dopamine-related genes to sensation-seeking personality types were inconsistent in their results. But they did find that people who have certain variations within the genes – particularly a gene known as “DRD4” – gravitated towards risky behavior much more than others.

Study on DNA and Risky Behavior

Most of this research didn’t focus on the kind of risk-taking that wins Olympic gold, though. Instead, it mostly looked at negative risky behavior (or “deviant risk-taking”) like gambling and drug addiction. Dr. Cynthia Thomson, a teaching fellow at Quest University Canada, noticed the way these studies were being conducted and realized that the research seemed to focus on the wrong types of behavior. Dr. Thomson believed it may be more revealing to study thrill-seekers competing in sports like skiing and snowboarding, where athletic styles range from steady, cautious movements to gravity-defying spins off mountains.

Dr. Thomson created an in-depth questionnaire specifically for skiers and snowboarders – questions included how often, how fast, and how recklessly the winter athletes performed. Along with the slope-specific questionnaire, Dr. Thomson had participants fill out a standard personality questionnaire and provide a cheek swab for DNA. A high score on the combined tests would indicate a significant tendency to seek out risky behavior, and the DNA samples would reinforce the participants’ answers.

In her research of the genetic aspect, Dr. Thomson focused on the variations of the participants’ DRD4 genes. By zeroing in on a very small section of this gene, she found that skiers and snowboarders who had a specific pattern of DNA coding were far more likely to have a higher score on the risk-taking tests. When the study was repeated on a larger group of volunteers, Dr. Thomson found the same results – a close association between the variation of the DRD4 gene and the willingness to engage in risky behavior on the slopes.

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Overall, Dr. Thomson’s study suggests that some people – those with that specific DRD4 gene variation – have a genetic, instinctive need to take part in risky activities. These people have an “optimal level of arousal” that is naturally higher than others, Dr. Thomson explained, even if their parents are shy and reserved. It’s quite possible for each parent to have different parts of that sensation-seeking gene in their DNA, which may combine and result in a child who is a total daredevil.

There is no single aspect that causes us to do the things we do, but Dr. Thomson believes that if thrill-seeking personality types must have a healthy outlet for their daredevil tactics. If not, they may turn to damaging behavior like gambling or drugs as a way to release those daredevil-type urges. So if you have a child who likes to jump off couches and do flips from the monkey bars, you might want to consider encouraging them in a sport like skiing, gymnastics or snowboarding as a healthy way to put that daredevil gene to good use!

Do you consider yourself or your child a daredevil? What do you think about the genetic component? Do you believe that sensation-seeking might lead to harmful behavior if a healthy outlet isn’t provided? Let us know in the comments!

Source: The New York Times

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