An icon of teenage rebellion, legendary movie star James Dean was killed in a tragic crash on his way to a sports car race. He remained true to the motto: Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. We dangle precariously from paragliders, suspend ourselves from rocky precipices, and bungee jump off cliffs. We pay millions of dollars each year at amusement parks to scream our lungs out on rides with names like Apocalypse, Ghost Rider, and Exterminator.
But what are the motivations behind our flirtations with death — from the scale of extraordinary risks taken by astronauts, tightrope walkers, and fighter pilots, down to our own daily acts of daring, such as jumping into our cars to drive to work? Some people’s tendency to seek out thrilling sensations and exploits — taking wild risks purely for the sake of such experiences — drives them to perform death-defying acts. Does their genetic makeup underlie this behavior? Could traits such as novelty-seeking and extroversion potentially be linked to a “daredevil” gene?
When it comes to my own risk-taking behavior, I have a confession to make — I failed sports at school. Miss Trainer, our aptly named PE teacher, scrawled E+ on my report card, the failing grade embellished with a plus presumably for encouragement. I spent most gym, softball, and tennis classes hiding behind the stacks at the back of the library, reading a book. My greatest claim to athletic achievement was an insipid pale green ribbon for coming fifth in the junior tunnel-ball event in the annual sports carnival. I still treasure it, although it lies hidden among my academic certificates. My children pat me on the head as they casually throw yet another of their winning awards in sprinting, swimming, soccer, and ballet onto the dining room table. I wonder if they have ever noticed my lower lip trembling ever so slightly?
Looking back now, my tunnel-ball milestone might well have been a cri de guerre for me at the time. In my late teens, I decided to dust myself off and prove that I actually did have some sporting prowess. I trekked to the other side of the world, where I took on the ski slopes of Austria. How impressive would my dating résumé look, bragging in bold about schussing over powder on an Olympic piste, a confident and elegant little ski bunny? My plan lasted exactly five minutes. On my very first run, I jumped a huge mogul and landed waist-deep in an icy slush pile, the ligaments of my left knee frayed forever. I soon learned the German word for plaster (gips) as I spent the next six weeks of my vacation hobbling around Europe in a full leg cast, leaning on my crutches. That E+ grade had come back to haunt me.
Risk-taking can be viewed as a mechanism for taking control over one’s life. Some postulate that it may represent an indirect expression of anger. Irvin Yalom, a renowned psychotherapist, has spent years exploring his patients’ dread of death. In his book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, he asks clients the question “What precisely do you fear about death?” Inevitably, most people speak of regret they have over things they have not done — living an “unlived life … The more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death.”
Recently, researchers found a possible daredevil gene, and after having my genome mapped, I couldn’t resist the temptation, just for fun, to see if I carried this variant. I nearly fell off the chair when I found out being a thrill-seeker might be hidden in my DNA. I figured if I could stay calm while resuscitating a patient in the emergency room, surely I could jump straight off a six-meter rock into a swimming hole in Puerto Rico. (I did scream pretty loudly on the way down.) Studies show that professional risk-takers have an ability to focus entirely on the task at hand; their cerebral cortex limits the incoming messages their brains process at the time, filtering out extraneous information to avoid overload and panic. This kind of tunnel vision, or limited awareness, is the reason behind their success and perhaps even their survival.
However, the concept of a daredevil gene was based on one small research study. Finding this variant explains only a very tiny fraction of risk-taking behavior. Sadly, being a carrier of this gene would not be predictive of my future career prospects as a base jumper. It’s more than likely that if there is a genetic basis for risk-taking, multiple genes will be involved. Nature is undoubtedly only part of the story.
Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who served as commander of the International Space Station in 2013, admits he has always been scared of heights. “I wasn’t destined to be an astronaut,” he said at the Melbourne Writers Festival. “I had to turn myself into one. Standing at the edge of a cliff, I always get a yawning primal fear of falling.”
Up in space though, his raw terror was replaced by a deep understanding of true danger. An astronaut’s training encompasses scenarios of how to respond to every imaginable or unimaginable glitch or disaster on board a spacecraft.
“We spend years and years preparing for failure,” he said. “We practice our responses.”
It’s intriguing to speculate what a daredevil gene might signify. Does it mean those who might carry it are hardwired toward risky behavior? Can the wimps of the world simply blame their heredity? No matter whether we carry a daredevil gene, we could all benefit from learning skills to help confront and combat anxiety over the myriad uncertainties life continues to serve up.