What is the neurological basis for people being seemingly fearless and engaging in risk-taking and daredevil behaviour?

I am talking about those that frequently perform or participate in activities that are often described by a lot of people as reckless and life-threateningly dangerous.

  • $\begingroup$ I would include 'risk-taking' as a quality for daredevil behaviour in the scope of the question as well. $\endgroup$
    – coeus
    Sep 26, 2013 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ Would the downvoter care to explain? $\endgroup$
    – user3554
    Sep 26, 2013 at 19:48
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ +1 from me. The literature on sensation seeking might be relevant. $\endgroup$ Sep 27, 2013 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ To complement Jeromy's comment, maybe look at Borderline Personality Disorder - "marked tendency to act unexpectedly" in conjunction with sensation seeking. See also Soloff et al - "Impulsivity and prefrontal hypometabolism in borderline personality disorder". $\endgroup$
    – coeus
    Sep 27, 2013 at 0:48
  • $\begingroup$ @JeromyAnglim it was a reasonably difficult question to answer thoroughly. Required a but of digging to exclude different types of personality disorders, psychopathy etc.. they participate in a different type of risk taking. You were spot on with the Sensation seeking. $\endgroup$
    – user10932
    Oct 8, 2013 at 16:40

2 Answers 2


Dopamine receptor agonists related to reckless driving and gambling

There are three case reports provided by Reactions Weekly (2010) demonstrating correlations between treatment with dopamine receptor agonists and reckless driving:

Reckless driving occurred in three patients during treatment with dopamine receptor agonists (DA) ... DA are associated with impulse control disorders, and may alter how the brain perceives and avoids risk. DA-associated impulse control disorders include pathological gambling and hypersexuality. Reckless driving may be another manifestation of DA-associated impulse control disorders.

Some further evidence is provided to suggest neurological correlates between dopamine receptor agonist and risky choices in a gambling task (Riba et al., 2008):

In summary, the present findings indicate that the dopamine D2/D3 receptor agonist pramipexole is capable of blocking reward-related activations in the rostral basal ganglia and midbrain and may lead to a behavioral disinhibition characterized by increases in risky choices in a gambling task.

Neurological correlates between voluntary and involuntary risk taking in the brain

A study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and administered a modified BART with an active choice mode and a passive no-choice mode in order to examine the neural correlates of voluntary and involuntary risk taking in the human brain (Rao et al., 2008):

In summary, the present study modified the BART in both active and passive modes for use during fMRI and the findings provide direct visualization of voluntary and involuntary risk processing in the human brain. Regardless of the involvement of voluntary decision making, risk in this task is processed in visual pathway regions in the occipital and parietal lobes. However, during active decision-making, risk is associated with additional robust activation in dopamine rich mesolimbic (VTA-striatum) and frontal regions (insula, ACC/MFC, and DLPFC). Voluntary decision making per se, is associated with activation in the right DLPFC, which is absent in the involuntary no-choice condition. These results contribute to understanding the neural basis of normal and high risk behavior. Extending this paradigm to pathological populations characterized by impaired decisionmaking, such as patients with drug addition and compulsive gambling, may allow the specific neural components of impaired risk behavior to be distinguished, and may ultimately inform more effective clinical treatment interventions.


  • Reactions Weekly. (2010). Dopamine receptor agonists: reckless driving: 3 case reports.(Adverse Reaction Case Reports)(Case study)(Brief article), 1300, 18(1)
  • Riba, J., Kramer, U.M., Heldmann, M., Richter, S. & Munte, T.F. (2008). Dopamine agonist increases risk taking but blunts reward-related brain activity. PLoS One, 3(6)
  • Rao, H. Korczykowski, M., Pluta, J., Hoang, A. & Detre, J.A. (2008). Neural correlates of voluntary and involuntary risk taking in the human brain: An fMRI study of the Balloon Analog Risk Task (BART). Neuroimage, 42, 902-910

Sensation Seeking behaviour:

Sensation Seeking behaviour, is a better description of the type of extreme dare devil or extreme sport type of behaviour, as opposed to risk taking generally. Reckless risk taking is associated with a variety of psychological conditions that do not necessarily display this specific style of risk taking. There are gender differences with sensation seeking behaviour (and risk taking generally), with more men exhibiting this type of behaviour. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that men, classically the hunters and protectors, would be more inclined to take risks.

Type T personality:

People who are high on the sensation seeking scale, are not necessarily anti social, but a personality type, which propels them to push the limits of life. The best description I have of this type of personality is the description of being a Type T personality. Channeled positively, this type of personality has the potential to be a high achiever.

The Type T personality has been described as a personality dimension referring to individual differences in stimulation seeking, excitement seeking, thrill seeking, arousal seeking, and risk taking. (1)

Physiological differences:

Sensation seekers have notable physiological differences from individual's with average risk taking profiles. Their orienting reflex (OR) works in reverse to other individuals. In brief, OR is a creatures natural response to external stimuli, change in environment. An event that would, usually, cause a stressful response in the autonomic nervous system will trigger an entirely different response in this type of personality. Physiologically this personality type is primed for adventure.

One study found that when subjects with high disinhibition scores were presented with a moderate-intensity tone, their heart-rates slowed down on the first exposure, while the heart rates of low sensation-seekers quickened.
Another of his studies, published in the Journal of Personality (Vol. 58, No. 1, pages 313-345) in 1990, indicates that the differences between high and low sensation-seekers extend to the cortex of the brain, with high sensation-seekers showing an "augmenting" electrochemical reaction, or increasing amplitude of cortical-evoked potentials (EPs) in response to increasing intensities of stimulation. Low sensation-seekers, however, demonstrate a reducing reaction, showing little EP increase in relation to increasing stimulus intensity, and sometimes showing a reduction in EP amplitudes at the highest intensities of stimulation. (2)

Monoamine oxidase (MAO) is needed for the chemical cascade in the release of dopamine. The brain chemistry is also deficit in MAO, which could explain the need for a self induced high, from thrill seeking, to increase the release of dopamine.


In conclusion these extremists, may be an evolutionary necessity for the species. As mentioned in one of the articles, it is this drive to push the boundaries that has caused the species to explore the earth and, even, outer space.


  • Gender differences in risk taking: A meta-analysis.
    Byrnes, James P,et al doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.125.3.367

  • Type T personality and the Jungian classification system.
    Morehouse RE, et al PMID: 2313544 (1)

  • Risk taking in Extreme Sports: A phenomenological perspective
    Brymer, Eric PDF

  • Frisky, but more risky
    Christopher Munsey, American Psychological Association (2)

  • Higher Nervous Functions: The Orienting Reflex
    E N Sokolov DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ph.25.030163.002553

  • Natural selective attention: Orienting and emotion
    Margaret M. Bradley DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2008.00702.x

  • Risk taking: A study in cognition and personality.
    Kogan, Nathan; Wallach, Michael A, Oxford, England: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. (1964)

  • Motivational determinants of risk-taking behavior. Atkinson, John W doi: 10.1037/h0043445

  • The life attitudes schedule: a scale to assess adolescent life-enhancing and life-threatening behaviors.
    Lewinsohn PM, et al

All supporting evidence for all my claims are within these references


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