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Issue Nineteen / Essay
“Technology has also allowed us the privilege of going where few—or no—people have gone before”

In Anxious Anticipation

Words by Jordan Kushins Photographs by Aaron Tilley Set Design by Kyle Bean

A telltale thump of the heart, the flush feeling that starts in your chest and spreads to your fingertips, the tightening of muscles and the quickening of breath: The effects of adrenaline are positively pulse-pounding, but the physical whoosh we feel in our bodies actually starts in our brains.

The connection between what the mind perceives and how the body reacts is a curious relationship. Adrenaline flows into our autonomic nervous system when it anticipates that something bad is about to happen—not because something bad is already happening. This hormonal offensive was an essential survival tool for our earliest ancestors that came with our fight-or-flight response, which defends us against immediate threats.

By preparing our bodies to manage danger, these rushes precede both the impending action and our response to it. After all, if we were only filled with jittery energy and super-human strength once that stressor was actually upon us, we’d be sitting in the pit of a saber-toothed tiger’s gut.

To understand the physical effects of adrenaline, say hello—and thank you—to your adrenal glands. Think of them as the first responders: When a stressful situation makes your nervous system go into overdrive, these organs kick into gear, producing and secreting a powerful hormone called epinephrine, better known by its common name: adrenaline.

But the human mind is a powerful thing: We have the ability to induce this same internal whoosh simply by thinking about a hairy moment instead of actually living it (no close call with a semitruck required). Whether you’re preparing to request that big raise at work, pondering your imminent descent of a Black Diamond-level ski slope or gathering the courage to ask out that super cute friend-of-a-friend you met at a party, any number of these nerve-wracking situations can make your brain feel like it’s free-falling at 14,000 feet even when you’re sipping tea at your kitchen table.

The 2002 documentary Adrenaline Rush: The Science of Risk posits that humans are the only species to chance death in the pursuit of a good time, but not all humans feel enthused about this. Wherever you fall on the spectrum—whether it’s finding jubilation by coming within four squares of completing the New York Times Sunday crossword or rappelling down the side of Yosemite’s Half Dome—you can still receive the same cascade of endocrinological chemical messengers flowing like whoa. If the word “extreme” isn’t part of your job title and riding the rapids is not your idea of a good time, there are other ways you can get that same jump without actually having to jump.

Nowadays instead of chasing off wild animals, a new generation of thrill-seekers is actively chasing a similar kind of energy and finding innovative ways to raise the stakes—artificially. As we don’t actually need to put ourselves in the line of fire anymore (literally), isn’t it a safer option to seek our stimulations virtually?

A host of digital platforms has emerged to share these first-hand experiences with those who prefer their arousal once removed. We can now access a veritable smorgasbord of sensations with a click, from Netflixing horror films for a scary fix to following rock climbing adventures of professional scalers on Instagram or tuning into the NBA Finals through patchy third-party websites. In many ways, this ease has transformed us into a society of vibe voyeurs.

Which is okay. Great, even. Because let’s be honest: With no foes to fend off or survival to be fought for, daily life can be a bit… dull. Even though it’s comfortable, the same commute and the same routine in the same city can eventually lose luster. Where we once depended on our own daydreams to offer an immediate escape to a more exciting land, there are now a myriad of people who have not only made those same reveries into reality but have also documented everything and put it online for the whole world to see. It’s turned a quick mid-afternoon Google search into the new gazing-longingly-off-into-the-distance.

In some ways, this has contributed to a growing disconnect between craving exhilaration and actually making it happen for ourselves, as now we can get our kicks vicariously through observing someone else’s accomplishments. This makes perfect sense: Empathy is a key factor in triggering how we might respond to a situation beyond ourselves. A solo experience is impressive, but a shared experience—“shared” in all senses of its modern meanings—can be incredibly powerful. Now all it takes to establish oneself as an armchair adventurer is a functional internet connection, and voilà: Instant gratification from the convenience of your sofa.

This desire for indirect adrenaline is not a new phenomenon. When the original broadcast of Apollo 11’s moon landing aired back in 1969, 600 million people sat glued to TV screens with their loved ones close by. Awed and apprehensive, they strained to see the grainy footage. It was incredible, and it was just as exciting for those on the ground. (Well, almost.) There’s a famous photograph by Lee Balterman of Joan Aldrin (the wife of astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin) that captured her face just as “the Eagle” touched down on the surface: eyes closed, cigarette in hand, her expression a pure distillation of both agony and ecstasy, wrought with fervor around the fact that it was her own loved one up there in space.

Four decades later, our synapses are still stimulated by that historic affair, which is now available—restored and in enhanced HD—for viewing for the first time or the umpteenth. In other words: You don’t actually have to be Buzz to vicariously enjoy his buzz.

Compare this to 2012 when global citizens communicated with each other online as the Curiosity rover completed a near-flawless descent on the surface of Mars, as if in some kind of sci-fi fantasy. Onlookers streamed this extraordinary event in real time, watching with the same sweaty palms and bated breath as the NASA engineers in Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Lab, who were responsible for the interplanetary robot’s fantastic voyage.

Most normal folk will never take a trip to the moon, and it’ll be a long while until mankind makes a giant leap onto the surface of Mars. Though sometimes it may distance us from the act, technology has also allowed us the privilege of going where few—or no—people have gone before, whether it’s spending time in space or running alongside cheetahs in the Serengeti. We can experience moments and lives that exist so far beyond our own that they seem almost inconceivable. Except they’re not—watching these kinds of thrills makes us realize that our wildest dreams are actually within our reach. So instead of playing into our passivity, the exposure to these high-stakes displays may actually galvanize legions to get off their butts, get moving and pursue those similar highs themselves.

Whether we’re readying ourselves for the start of an event or just imagining ourselves partaking in it, the buzz of nervous anticipation is sometimes as satisfying as the reward at the end. Often just the thought of what if? can be as potent as the act itself, and the thrill of the chase may occasionally be more powerful than the real deal.

By learning to embrace the heady feelings that gurgle within us before fear takes hold, we can rediscover our personal lust for life—whether that’s through vicarious voyeurism or holding our breath before actually plunging into the deep.

Order The Adrenaline Issue here.

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