Roller coasters

Roller coasters fill me with dread, until they actually start moving. Source:

I kind of like roller coasters.  I don’t love roller coasters in the way that some people do, and there are certain roller coasters I simply won’t go on, such as wooden roller coasters, mostly because they don’t strap you into those types of coasters with hydraulics.  I want that big harness to lock down kind of painfully over my shoulders, and I even pull them down tighter onto my shoulders than is necessary.  And, every single time, I feel a moment of intense panic, because I have been asking myself, all the way through the line, and even as the workers are giving each other the thumbs up signal that will send us on our way, “What if my harness isn’t really locked?”  Of course, it always is, and the car takes off.  But I like them well enough that I can often work up the nerve to ride on them, even if they make me nervous.  That’s part of the fun, right?

Here is here the odd behavior comes in.  The minute the car leaves the starting area, I start laughing.  And I don’t stop until we get to the end.  And it isn’t just a little chuckle.  Oh no, it’s a loud, braying laugh that shakes my whole body and makes the muscles of my stomach ache.  It’s been so obnoxious that sometimes, as we’re climbing that first big steep hill that starts all these coasters off, people have actually twisted around in their seat to give me dirty looks.

What on earth is going on ?  Why am I behaving this way?

Well, in the 70s, Solomon proposed an explanation for this behavior, which he dubbed the Opponent-Process Theory.  There are several different version of the Opponent-Process Theory, each of which addresses different things, such as color vision (which we are familiar with from the lecture on vision) to motivation. Solomon’s theory dealt specifically with emotional responses, and is outlined briefly in the video below, plus I’ll describe it as well.


 So, what Solomon proposed is that every emotional response is biphasic.  In other words, there’s an initial emotional response, which they call the a process, that is experienced.  This a process is followed by the opposite response, the b process.  As the video shows, a person making their first skydive will feel increasing nervousness as the moment of the jump approaches.  Successful completion of the jump produces a state akin to euphoria, which is the opposite of the initial extreme trepidation.

This is a slide from one of my Learning lectures that shows how the two emotions work (on the left) and what is experienced emotionally (on the right).

This is pretty much exactly what happens to me when I ride roller coasters.  I’m horribly nervous standing in line and actually getting into the harness, almost to the point where I feel like I’m going to faint.  As soon as the car gets going, however, the opposite response kicks in.  For most people, it would be after the ride is over.  For me, the worst part is over as soon as the car takes off and I feel safe knowing I’m not going to get flung from the car due to a faulty harness.  So I start laughing.

Obviously, my nervous system is controlling this behavior, and I have to wonder about the exact sequencing of the emotional responses that are experienced.  I think it’s safe to assume my “fight or flight” response, controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, is activated while I’m standing in line.  I feel all the classic symptoms of extreme nervousness.  Nothing new or interesting there—these rides are supposed to make us feel that way (because the designers knew full well about the b process, I think).  The curiosity here is the opposite response.  Why don’t I just go back to my more neutral emotional state after the ride starts?  Why do I have such an extreme response in the opposite direction?

One thing that’s true about our body is that it generally likes to maintain a regulated state.  You’ve heard the word “homeostasis,” which means “steady state” before.  Our body likes to maintain a balanced state of affairs physiologically, neither too hot nor too cold, neither too full nor too hungry, etc.  The same is true of our behaviors as well, including our emotions.  The whole point of the biphasic emotional response is to get back to equilibrium, and perhaps the only way to manage that is for the body to overshoot in the opposite direction after a particularly strong emotion is felt.  So, we feel extreme fear, and to counter that, we feel extreme happiness.  That’s kind of the good way for things to go because we’re left feeling generally more positive even when we get back down to the relatively neutral state.  The bad part is when the initial feeling is extreme happiness, because that’s countered by extreme sadness for a little bit before we recover.  But all of that is necessary to get us back to that even-keel we like to maintain.

I like to think, when I ride roller coasters, that I am laughing in the face of adversity.  However, the truth is, I’m really just laughing in relief!