Why We Love Roller Coasters

Next summer the world’s tallest, longest, and fastest roller coaster will open: The Velravn in Cedar Point, Ohio. This upcoming record-breaking 223-foot tall ride suggests that our lust for high drops and big thrills is stronger than ever. But what exactly is it that makes us as humans so eager to get on board these seemingly life-threatening rides?

In case you thought the trend was slowing down, Cedar Point isn’t the only amusement park launching a new, state-of-the-art thrill ride this year. Six Flags’ Twisted Colossus overhauls the classic coaster, while Carowinds’ Fury 325 breaks new ground as the world’s fastest “giga coaster.”

Believe it or not, roller coasters may actually have a positive effect on us beyond entertainment. Possible psychological benefits include stress relief and memory enhancement. Nevertheless, the large dips, twists, and turns jostle riders’ internal organs and can incite dizziness and nausea (and vomiting, of course), according to pediatrician Howard Bennett. But the stomach-upsetting side effects hardly deter many from enjoying a quality roller coaster ride.

Another aspect of riding roller coasters that appeals to human nature is the freedom to act wildly. The experience allows people to scream as loud as they want, grab each other tightly for support, or wave their hands around in the air. All of these practices would be unacceptable in the middle of the street, but are seemingly normal while strapped in a cart hundreds of feet off the ground. The behavior is even more appealing to kids who, as we all know, tire of the rigid structures of everyday life.

Apart from actually being on the coaster, avid riders enjoy boarding the latest thrill machine because of the gratification of taking it on and surviving. They feel stronger and more confident from the experience–and get major bragging rights, of course. Glenn Sparks, PhD., explained that people “get great satisfaction being able to say that they conquered and mastered something that was threatening.”

Furthermore, making it through a wild ride also has social perks, as we’re able to bond with others over extreme situations. Joining friends, family, or loved ones for a thrill ride provides a shared experience that can bring people closer together. After all, amusement parks have been a popular location to go on a date for years, and continue to draw in couples to this day.

“A couple who ride together may find that it strengthens mutual attraction,” neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis said.

Psychologist Jeff Skolnick reasoned that the appeal of roller coasters “actually is evidence that people can be placed on a spectrum based on how their body reacts to sensations and stress.” Due to genes, some individuals’ bodies amplify sensations and emotions, while others reduce those feelings in the brain. To put it simply, there are those of us who are more sensitive, and those who have thicker skin. Members of the former group are called “stimulus augmenters,” while the latter are “stimulus reducers.” Naturally, reducers are more likely to enjoy thrilling, high-stakes entertainment like roller coasters and horror movies than augmenters would.

Personally, it was not until recently that I thought of roller coasters in a positive light. Based on the analysis Skolnick provided, I would say I fall into the augmenter group. I was fearful of going on roller coasters for years, because the flips and dips always seemed much worse than they actually are. Going on Disneyland’s Space Mountain with a large group of friends, though, the fear of the large drops, twists, and turns became less severe because we were all screaming and laughing together. I’m not saying I’m ready to take on Kingda Ka just yet, but I definitely feel like I now have a better understanding of how roller coasters can be enjoyable.

As Halloween approaches, lots of thrill-seekers will be flocking to roller coasters to get a good scare in. Six Flags features over five spooky themed rides every October, and this year is no exception. With coasters including Poltergeist Revenge and the Boomerang Terror Coaster, roller coaster lovers will be proving their worth–and potentially conquering threatening feats, relieving anxiety, or bonding with comrades.

Featured photo courtesy of Jamie McCaffrey.