Here in Tahoe, we have a lot of what we call “Type T” personalities. Contrary to what you might think, The “T” does not stand for “Tahoe” - or the bro-brah personality that your dirtbag neighbor exhibits when he poaches your hot tub, although that one might be in the early stages of being categorized. According to a scholarly article published in the Journal of Personal Assessment in 1990 by Moorehouse et al., Type T personality can be defined as “a personality dimension referring to individual differences in stimulation seeking, excitement seeking, thrill seeking, arousal seeking, and risk taking.” Roughly put – the T stands for “thrill seeking.”
Let’s take a look into what drives these kinds of people (i.e. most of my friends) to live their lives the way they do. What is it that sends these people back to the drop zone over and over, or up McConkey’s one more time even though the line they ate it on last run is now tracked out and peppered with nasty sharks lurking a few inches deep?
A large part of the answer lies somewhere in a lump of tissue lying at the level of the 12th thoracic vertebrae on the top of our each of our kidneys – the adrenal glands. The right adrenal gland has the shape of a triangle, and the left the shape of a crescent moon, each about the size of a ping-pong ball. The word “adrenal” has nothing to do with the function of this gland, it comes from the Latin “Ad” meaning “near” and “renal” meaning kidney – referring to the glands’ close proximity to our kidneys.
The Adrenal glands are part of the endocrine system, along with our pituitary and pineal glands, the thyroid, the pancreas, and the male and female sexual glands – the testes and ovaries. Each of these glands are made of cells whose job it is to produce and release specific hormones that regulate different body functions, such as growth, blood pressure, or energy-regulating glucose levels in blood.
The inner part of the adrenal glands is called the medulla, which is surrounded by the cortex. Corticosteroids are produced in the adrenal cortex, including small amounts of testosterone, which promotes muscle, bone, and hair growth. The medulla produces epinephrine and its counterpart norepinephrine, which are two of the main hormones involved in the “fight-or-flight” response. The job of the adrenal glands is to release hormones into our bloodstreams in a direct response to stresses and threats, to help us best deal with the situation at hand.
Epinephrine is the actual chemical name for what is colloquially known as “adrenaline.” The word literally means the same thing as “adrenal” in terms of translating to mean “near the kidneys,” but is derived from Greek instead of Latin. The compound was first synthesized in the lab in 1895 by Polish scientist Napoleon Cybulski, but it was simultaneously discovered in Japan by Keizo Uenaka five years later. The effects of epinephrine on the body are diverse, including but not limited to an increase in heart rate to pump more blood, dilation of air passages in the lungs to facilitate bringing in more oxygen to the bloodstream, and constriction of blood vessels to move more blood around the body more efficiently. All of these things are physical manifestations of the “fight or flight” response.
What does any of this have to do with Type-T personality? Type Ts are much more likely to repeatedly engage in thrill-seeking behavior because it is exactly that behaviour which tricks the body into producing epinephrine over and over again, as the body’s natural response to the “threat” to it’s continued well-being. Epinephrine induces a feeling of euphoria or a “high” in people when they seek out high-risk, high consequence activities such as big mountain skiing, hucking huge airs, sky diving, and BASE jumping. So when Type Ts head out to go skiing, they don’t just go cruise groomers at Northstar, they line up at KT two hours before the lifts open so they can race each other to the Fingers and throw a backflip off the Middle Knuckle. In this way, they are adrenaline junkies in the same way that addicts repeatedly shoot heroin into their arms. When they go long periods without getting their adrenaline “fix” they become agitated and morose. Just ask any Tahoe local during one of our month-long “Juneuary” dry spells how bad he or she is fiending for deep powder.
Epinephrine and the physical response to it seen in our bodies can be highly addictive. In fact, the body actually produces hormones called “endorphins” when stressed which counteract the effects of epinephrine. Endorphins have a similar effect to morphine, in that they dull or lessen pain, and produce a dreamy, mellow feeling of wellness. It is said that endorphins are generated as part of the response to intense physical pain, to aid the body in blocking the pain signals and to help the injured party collect themselves so as to deal with the source of the injury.
Perhaps the most popularly known movie about Type T personalities is the epic 1991 film Point Break, which features the Oscar-worthy acting of pseudo-Hawaiian Keanu Reeves (sorry Scott Gaffney, its not Adrenaline Descents). Just check out the powerful ending:
Special Agent Utah surely understands Bodie’s need to get in one last adrenaline fix, so he uncuffs him, and lets him paddle into the certain-death closeout set-of-a-lifetime instead of taking him to boring old prison.
And, if you’re doubting your body’s ability to produce enough epinephrine after all of those skydives or runs down For Pete’s Sake, there is one event that will reward you with one shot glass filled with pure human adrenaline – the Captain Chaos Class of the New York to Apocalypse leg of the Rental Car Rally. Check it out here:
But – be careful (that is if the organizers are really serious) as too much epinephrine can lead to anxiety, heart flutter and palpitations, headaches, tremors and other central nervous system malfunctions, high blood pressure, and even acute pulmonary edema. Maybe better to just stick to the Fingers race.