Science finds a reason some people take unreasonable risks

Paul Nicklen is a polar photographer
Paul Nicklen is a photographer who takes his camera to extreme parts of the world to document the effects of climate change.
Photo courtesy of Paul Nicklen

Paul Nicklen is accustomed to danger.

His most famous photographs are of animals in the Arctic. He says his goal is to help people realize how important ice is to the survival of the animals. "It just takes one image to get someone's attention," he says.

Paul Nicklen photographs Antarctica
Paul Nicklen with one of his subjects.
Photo courtesy of Paul Nicklen

To get that image, he's willing to take risks. Take his pictures of Atlantic walruses, for example. To get those shots, he had to climb through a hole in the ice and swim up to a 1.5-ton creature with a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth.

Why is he willing to expose himself to dangers like that as a matter of routine?

Psychiatrist and researcher David Zald has a theory. It centers on a chemical called dopamine, the neurotransmitter that stimulates the brain's reward center. You know that feeling of satisfaction you get when, for example, you escape the jaws of an Atlantic walrus and snap the cover photo for a National Geographic? That comes from dopamine.

It's thought that different people produce different amounts of dopamine, and those who are prone to take risks tend to produce more than average. Additionally, through brain scans, Zald has found that people who are more likely to take risks have fewer autoreceptors, which limit the amount of dopamine that can pass through to the brain.

Nicklen and Zald join The Daily Circuit to share their views on risk.


The Mystery of Risk
Dopamine helps elicit a sense of satisfaction when we accomplish tasks: the riskier the task, the larger the hit of dopamine. Part of the reason we don't all climb mountains or run for office is that we don't all have the same amount of dopamine. Molecules on the surface of nerve cells called autoreceptors control how much dopamine we make and use, essentially controlling our appetite for risk. (National Georgraphic)

Risky Brains Lack 'Brakes' (ScienCentral)

Paul Nicklen's TED Talk:

Volume Button
Now Listening To Livestream
MPR News logo
On Air
MPR News