By Alan Dean Foster
You hear about an “adrenaline rush” or “adrenaline high” all the time, most commonly in relation to sports. Especially extreme sports such as skydiving, rock climbing, big wave surfing, motocross, and — of especial note for Prescott residents — assorted rodeo activities. One needn’t be involved in any of these to experience such a high, albeit perhaps not to such a great degree. Ordinary sports provide a lesser degree of stimulation, particularly when competition is involved. In these instances, the old saying “It’s in our blood” is more than just a cliché. It’s all about the biochemistry.
Adrenaline is mostly produced by the — surprise — adrenal glands, although some neurons are also responsible. The chemical is produced in response to signals from the brain, usually in reaction to a need to acquire food or to fight.
So what are we to make of situations where one gets an adrenaline rush in response to pleasure (assuming said pleasure doesn’t involve food or fighting)? Note that I’m not talking about endorphins, which are produced elsewhere in the body and are intended to relax or reward you in pleasurable situations.
I don’t have to jump out of a plane or cling by my fingernails to get an adrenaline rush. Walking through the rainforest is what does it for me. I think it’s a combination of excitement, of not knowing what’s around the next tree, that I find so exciting. With big wave surfing, you can see the wave coming. When climbing, you see the rock wall above you. And with skydiving — well, everything is spread out in plain view before you take the leap.
But in the rainforest, or if we want to be more theatrical, in the jungle, you never know what is going to leap, fly, crawl, slither, or cut across the path in front of you. Surprise is a far bigger generator of adrenaline than a known quantity, save except for a direct attack by an animal or another human. And I’ve found that nothing holds more surprises than the jungle. You can see trees and vines, but not much else. The excitement and tension come from the not knowing. In a way, the process is not too different from watching a well-made horror movie. You expect something to jump out at you.
In a horror movie, you usually have some idea of what’s coming: Jason, Freddy, the Wolf Man, Anthony Perkins: just not when and from where. In the jungle you have no idea. The expectation is magnified by the realization that whatever might confront you could be too small to see (parasites), too big to fight off (jaguar), too numerous to battle (army ants), extraordinarily painful (tarantula hawk wasps), deadly poisonous (fer-de-lance), or even unobtrusive (leeches).
There. I bet you raised your adrenaline level simply by reading that short list. That’s how the body responds to the threat of danger. And yet, even as my adrenaline level rises I find beauty in every one of those creatures. The excitement of recognition clashes with the reality of danger.
I haven’t set foot in a rainforest in many years and — I miss it. There is nothing like making your way through primary rainforest alone, accompanied by only the sound of birds and the occasional percussive chitter of insects. You don’t see much. Everything tries to hide from everything else, because in the rainforest everything tends to try and eat everything else. You watch your footing lest you sink up to your knee in mud, or trip over a root, or accidentally pick up a hitchhiker that might not take kindly to your presence. The fact that so much of the wildlife might have an interest in eating you stimulates your senses and makes you wary.
But the beauty of those same creatures is what makes the trek worthwhile. The tarantula that’s made a nest in a tree hollow. The stripes on a tiger leech. The martial perfection of a column of army ants streaming across a log (you can safely get quite close). The iridescent chitin of a wasp or biting fly or a hundred other potentially dangerous insects. Howler monkeys baring their teeth at you. Huge caimans hugging the shore of a river or lake on the lookout for fish, turtles, lizards, and errant swimmers. Even the piranhas that you know are highly unlikely to bite — but the possibility is always there. The leaf that hides a chromatic poison arrow frog. The buttress root where a bushmaster makes its home. All of it contributes to a thrill and excitement so very different from scaling rock walls and jumping out of a plane and contesting gravity from the back of a horse.
I miss it, yes, and the result is an adrenaline low no amount of pleasant, relaxed, civilized existence can supplant.
On the other hand, if you need that rush, there’s always driving in Prescott. …
Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.
Tags: adrenal gland, adrenaline, adrenaline high, adrenaline rush, Alan Dean Foster, army ants, biochemistry, fer-de-lance, horror movies, jaguar, leeches, parasites, Perceivings, rain forest, sports, tarantula hawk wasps