National Geographic, June 2013, Part 1

The Mystery of Risk, by Peter Gwin, photographs by John Stanmeyer

I have to admit that I approached this article’s and, indeed, this issue’s topic, risk-takers and why they do what they do, with a notion that I’m pretty risk-averse. I don’t like thrill rides, I don’t speculate on the stock market, I’m not even all that fond of driving. I spend a lot of time stressed out and kind of anxious.

But then I realized that I have plans to visit Yellowstone this year and hope to actually go far enough into the backcountry that I become one of the (at most) 5% of visitors who take that — what’s the word?  oh, yeah — risk. I travel to strange cities and wander around with a camera (and a cell phone because I’m not a complete fool and want to have access to 911 (or 119 or 211 or whatever) in case I overestimate my abilities) just to see what there is to see and how the people there live. And just starting a blog isn’t really the behavior of someone who plays it safe all the time.

Gwin tells us that scientists are finding the chemical triggers that make people take risks. And, contrary to what you might think, risk-takers are different from adrenaline junkies. Risk-takers are motivated by dopamine, not adrenaline. Adrenaline junkies take risks and get a buzz from the actual fear, and the buzz lasts after the fear is over. Adrenaline junkies have a higher-than-average chance of become addicted to other risks, like gambling.

Apparently, the dopamine-oriented risk-takers find reward in the risk that they take (like my desire to learn as much as I can, not from books, but from actually seeing the places and meeting the people and taking pictures and then thinking and writing about it) and, up to a certain extent, they take further and further risks for as long as the reward lasts. It’s not the danger, it’s the reward, whatever the reward is. And this description of the dopamine-oriented risk-taker, actually, does kind of sound like me.

Who knew?

In this article, Gwin mentions Paul Salopek, whose Out of Eden Walk hasn’t been updated in the magazine in a while (I just checked his blog and apparently he’s in Khazakhstan right now) talking about the risks our most distant ancestors took as they left the Great Rift Valley.  I wonder if the people who live in and/or near the Great Rift Valley have less of the dopamine-fueled risk taking than average. Their ancestors chose to stay, after all, and not take the risk. Meanwhile, the ancestors of the people of South America were the ones who traveled farthest from the Great Rift Valley, so presumably they were motivated more by dopamine than the ones who stopped earlier in the migration of humanity.

Deep Sea Challenge, by James Cameron, photographs by Mark Thiessen

James Cameron, perhaps best known for being a movie director, has apparently had something of a midlife career change. After working with a Russian exploration company on his 1997 film Titanic filming the actual wreck of the famous ocean liner, Cameron has apparently begun working more on oceanic exploration.  To that end, he and a team of “dreamers from all over the world” built a submarine, the Deepsea Challenger, to take Cameron to the deepest place in the world (the deepest point of the Marianas Trench), Challenger Deep.

Deep Sea Challenge is a sort of journal of Cameron’s trip to the bottom of Challenger Deep. He shares with us how he felt and what he experienced.  The Deepsea Challenger had a few mechanical problems, but Cameron did return successfully to the surface with some samples of the dirt from the bottom and of the the lifeforms that can be found at such a depth.

And this is one of the side effects of starting out at January 2015 and working my way outwards the way that I am. Looking around at Google, it seems that we’ve been following the career of James Cameron, ocean explorer, for at least a year by now.  It should be interesting to reach the beginning of this tale.

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