How roller coasters hack your brain

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“Clunk-clunk-clunk… clunk… clunk.”

The chain rattles as you make your way up the steel track. Slowly, you pull to a stop 456 feet (139 meters) in the air. The only thing preventing you from falling is an over-the-shoulder restraint that suddenly feels wholly inadequate.

You dare to glance down at the faraway tops of the trees when, without warning, you plunge downward, stomach lurching and heart pounding. After plummeting to the ground at 128 mph (205 kph), you make a sudden swooping turn, deaccelerate, and pull into the station[1]. The ride is over.

Did that sound exciting, or completely terrifying?

Since their introduction to the public in 1884[2], roller coasters have been loved by some people, and reviled by others. These strong but opposing responses owe to the same fact: roller coasters are really good at stimulating the part of your brain that processes danger.

Whether you’re the kind of person who enjoys the thrill of a roller coaster depends on your level of sensation seeking[3]. This is a personality trait related to how much you desire varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations—and how willing you are to take risks for such experiences. Those high on sensation seeking generally love roller coasters, while those low on the trait do not.

But what is it about roller coasters that makes them so thrilling to some? Surprisingly, it’s the combination of seeming risk and actual safety that they offer.

Roller coasters are designed to create the sensation of mortal danger in what psychologists call a protective frame[4]. People are able to enjoy emotions such as fear, dread, and alarm when they are presented in protective frames that shield them from negative consequences. It’s precisely because you are safely strapped to a steel track and know you’ll be returned in one piece that you are able to enjoy the otherwise life-threatening situation of plummeting from 40 stories high.

Amusement park engineers use a variety of psychological tricks to amplify how dangerous roller coasters seem.

They purposely place structural beams mere inches above your head, so that when you approach them at great speed, you feel like you’ll be hit[5]. Many coasters include dark tunnels and passageways that don’t allow you to see what’s ahead of you. When combined with sudden changes in speed, this makes it impossible to place yourself within your surroundings[6].

Then, there are the sounds. Wooden coasters are sometimes called “living buildings” because they are strategically built to creak, making you think they may fall apart at any moment[6]. The clunk-clunk of the chain, a by-product of the anti-rollback device, adds to the suspense as your car ascends to the top of the structure.

Even the names of rides are purposeful, and add to the effect. “Foreign-sounding” names seem riskier, and thus more fun, to those seeking thrills[7].

Whether you love or loathe roller coasters, the next time you go to an amusement park, keep in mind that the primal reactions they inspire rest on a foundation of safe, calculated planning.

References

1. Six Flags. (2017). Kingda Ka.
2. Cartmell, R. (1987). The incredible scream machine: a history of the roller coaster. Popular Press.
3. Zuckerman, M. (1979). Sensation seeking. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
4. Apter, M.J. (1982). The experience of motivation: the theory of psychological reversals. Academic Pr.
5. Fokkinga, S.F., Desmet, P.M.A., & Hoonhout, J. (2010). The dark side of enjoyment: Using negative emotions to design for rich user experiences. In Proceedings of the 7th International Conference of Design and Emotion Society.
6. Mohun, A.P. (2001). Designed for thrills and safety: Amusement parks and the commodification of risk, 1880-1929. Journal of Design History, 14, 291-306.
7. Song, H., & Schwarz, N. (2009). If it’s difficult to pronounce, it must be risky fluency, familiarity, and risk perception. Psychological Science, 20, 135-138.