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The Thrill of the Ride

Many are willing to go to great lengths to experience the adrenaline rush that comes with a thrill ride - spending hundreds of dollars for tickets and waiting for hours under the hot sun.

But what makes these rides so appealing?

To ride, or not to ride?

Thrill rides are designed to captivate our senses. Their bright colours, their skyscraping designs and their ability to produce ear-piercing screams are picked up by our sensory organs and sent to our somatosensory cortex, located in the parietal lobe. This information is sent to our hippocampal neurons, which are responsible for retrieving long term memories from your past experiences with thrill rides and how scary and exciting you remember them to be. All this information accumulates in the decision-making prefrontal cortex [1]. After the prefrontal cortex has carefully considered this information, weighing up the risk and rewards of participation, it will then make a decision [1].

Figure 1. The Interaction between the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and hippocampus when making a decision. In this diagram, input of somatosensory information is received by the hippocampus and sent to the PFC. The PFC then compares this initial information with saved information from the hippocampus to make a decision. From [1].

Sensation seekers chase novel and intense experiences and thus individuals who score highly on this trait are more likely to ride. Your decision may be affected by the amount of dopamine in your brain, which is not only associated with feelings of pleasure but also plays a major role in reward learning. Sensation seekers have been shown to have higher endogenous levels of dopamine and greater dopaminergic responses to reward cues (such as the vision cue of seeing the ride) [2].

No time left to flight

While you are waiting in line, your prefrontal cortex is working hard to modulate fear responses, reminding you that there is no real threat [1]. You can still expect your subjective feelings of anxiety to increase [3].

If it was dangerous they wouldn't be allowed to operate. That little kid is going on it as well, so I will definitely be fine, right?

Now after a long and restless wait it is finally your turn. As you start the steep ascent to the top of the first freefall, you notice how far up in the sky you are. This information is sent to your amygdala, which is responsible for the processing of fear-inducing and threatening stimuli [4]. Your amygdala perceives this height as being dangerous and in response, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus through a cascade of chemical events, activating the sympathetic nervous system which sends the body into fight or flight mode. This results in the secretion of hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline into the bloodstream, supplying the body with extra energy to respond to the stressor. [5].

As you begin flying down the track, the forces exerted on your body will cause further adrenaline to be secreted from the adrenal medulla [6]. When in fight or flight mode, extra oxygen is supplied to the brain meaning you are more alert and your senses are sharpened, so the screams of the people around you seem even louder. You can also expect your heart rate and breathing rate to increase because your heart is working harder to deliver extra oxygen to the brain. Your body is now working hard to prepare to face what it believes to be a threat to its survival and because of that your body temperature is increasing. So in order to prevent hyperthermia you start sweating [7].

You may be thinking that none of this so far seems to be particularly enjoyable. Yet the

hormones that were released earlier as part of the stress response continue to enhance our brain's dopamine transmission. Ultimately, increased levels of dopamine let us know that going on a thrillride is pleasurable and makes us more likely to repeat this behaviour in the future [7].

Figure 2. The autonomic nervous system. In this diagram, responses of the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the nervous system are shown. [8]

I was not even scared

When the ride comes to an end we can expect our parasympathetic nervous system to return the body to its homeostatic state. This happens through the release of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine allowing the body to enter its rest and digest stage. Your heart rate and breathing rate decreases and as your blood flow is redirected towards your digestive system, you start eyeing up those small hot chips for $7.50 [9]. With the now-increased levels of beta-endorphins, released from the pituitary gland, which leaves us feeling euphoric, you may realise you didn’t mind paying that much in the beginning [3].


[1] Saberi Moghadam S, Samsami Khodadad F, Khazaeinezhad V. An Algorithmic Model of Decision Making in the Human Brain. Basic and Clinical Neuroscience Journal [Internet]. 2019 Nov 30 [cited 2023 Mar 30];10(5):443–50. Available from:

[2] Norbury A, Husain M. Sensation-seeking: Dopaminergic modulation and risk for psychopathology. Behavioural Brain Research [Internet]. 2015 Jul 15 [cited 2023 Apr 1];288:79–93. Available from:

[3] Hennig J, Laschefski U, Opper C. Biopsychological Changes after Bungee Jumping: β-Endorphin Immunoreactivity as a Mediator of Euphoria? Neuropsychobiology [Internet]. 1994 [cited 2023 Mar 30];29(1):28–32.Available from:

[4] Baxter MG, Croxson PL. Facing the role of the amygdala in emotional information processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2012 Dec 14 [cited 2023 Mar 28 ];109(52):21180–1. Available from:

[5] Smith SM, Vale WW. The role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in neuroendocrine responses to stress. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience. 2006 [cited 2023 Mar 31 ];8(4):383–95. Available from:

[6] Harvard Health Publishing. Understanding the Stress Response [Internet]. Harvard Health. 2020. Available from:

[7] Belujon P, Grace AA. Regulation of dopamine system responsivity and its adaptive and pathological response to stress. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2015 Apr 22 [cited 2023 Mar 31];282(1805):20142516. Available from:

[8] Macrovector. Human peripheral autonomic nervous system with sympathetic spinal cord neurons signal communication realistic colorful scheme vector illustration. Shuttershock [Internet]. Available from:

[9] Clinic Clinic. Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS): What It Is & Function [Internet]. Cleveland Clinic. Available from:

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