Cortisol or dopamine?
Do you freak out over scary things or do you dive right into them headfirst? You know what I’m talking about – scary movies, bungee jumping, skydiving or haunted houses. What is it about these things fire some people up but scare others, well “excrementless?” Ken Carter, who teaches psychology at Oxford College of Emory University and has authored the book Buzz! Inside the Minds of Thrill-Seekers, Daredevils and Adrenaline Junkies gets inside the minds of the people who seek out thrills and danger. What follows is his explanation of the difference between high-sensation seekers and couch potatoes. High-sensation seekers gravitate toward adventure sports and risky undertakings. In the fight-or-flight response, cortisol is one of the hormones responsible for getting us ready to handle these situations. High-sensation seekers produce more dopamine (the pleasure neurotransmitter) than cortisol in these situations. In other words, they think the scary stuff is fun and have the “green light” on all the time. If you’re wondering where you fit in on the thrill-seeker spectrum, Carter has a quiz for you to take – if you dare. But other people have different ways of identifying personalities other than contrasting cortisol and dopamine.
Culture and temperament
As a biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and research professor at Rutgers University, breaks personality down into two core components – culture and temperament. Culture is how we learn to act as we’re growing up, but temperament is biological, she says. Dr. Fisher spent years digging through the medical literature and studies on “genetics, hormones, pharmaceuticals, sexual reassignment surgery, brain architecture, and neurotransmitters,” and quickly identified a pattern. “There was a host of personality traits linked with four brain systems, i.e., the dopamine, testosterone, estrogen/oxytocin, and serotonin systems,” according to Dr. Fisher. Once she had gathered sufficient data, she developed a personality questionnaire that’s the first to link brain activity to what she “calls four traits of temperament.” Dr. Fisher calls these Explorers, Builders, Directors and Negotiators, and they apply to males and females. Each of these has its own traits and is “driven by a particular neurotransmitter or hormone,” Dr. Fisher says. Below, I’ve listed her descriptions of the four types.
“Explorers are curious and energetic. They’re driven by dopamine—the pleasure neurotransmitter. It gives us a sense of elation, accomplishment, and reward. Pretty much anything that gives us pleasure from food to alcohol to sex gooses dopamine production. Explorers are thrill-seekers who are open-minded, creative, and cerebral. They crave adventure and novelty and are easily bored. They may be impulsive and lack introspection, however, as they are forever outward-looking.
“Builders are cautious. They’re driven by serotonin, which gives us a sense of relaxation, belonging, and comfort. They’re sociable, follow the rules, and are respectful. These folks are meticulous, orderly, methodical, good with numbers and may be religious. They are creatures of habit and practice self-control.
“Directors are driven by the testosterone system. They are honest, confident, assertive and analytical. As a result of receiving fetal testosterone, they have a tendency to understand math, music, computers or any rule-based systems. They also have higher visual-spatial perception, which may make them good at sports. These are detail-oriented, may lack empathy or sensitivity, be less verbally astute, less understanding of other people’s emotions and give less eye contact. They also may prone to being flooded by their emotions, making them prone to outbursts, particularly of anger.
“Negotiators received a hearty helping of prenatal estrogen. Estrogen is closely related to oxytocin – the calm and cuddle – hormone. This type is trusting, generous, imaginative, social, and open-minded. They’re also very nurturing and empathetic. Negotiators have excellent verbal skills.” According to Dr. Fisher, “we’re not all one or the other, but a combination of all of them. But we express some more than others. And that’s what creates our basic personality.” I took her quiz and scored as followed: Explorer – 38 out of 42 (90%), Negotiator – 34 out of 42 (81%) for my top two traits. Given my past professions, I can’t say that I’m surprised.