I love a good roller coaster, and I rode a great one this weekend! So, it’s fresh in my mind as to why we often use roller coasters as one of the best examples to define excitement in everyday life. I could feel my palms getting sweaty in anticipation of the unknown. My heartbeat started to race as I got nervous going up the first steep climb. And then there was the exhilaration of feeling like flying as we plunged and soared along the track. It’s easy to see the connections between my environment, my mental state, and my physical response—there’s a lot going on.
Dimensions of Emotions
Emotions are complicated phenomena, and scientists often analyze them in two dimensions. One dimension is called “valence,” or whether the emotion is positive/pleasant or negative/unpleasant, and to what degree. The other dimension is “arousal,” that is, whether the emotion is activating or deactivating. Excitement might be considered to have positive valence and high arousal. In contrast, you might think about calmness (positive valence/low arousal), anger (negative valence/high arousal), or boredom (negative valence, low arousal).
Positive or Negative? It's up to You!
Going back to my roller coaster experience, you might notice that some of the elements of activation—like sweaty palms or faster heartrate—are similar to reactions you would expect in a negative arousal situation, like anger or fear. An area of the brain called the hypothalamus controls this response through the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating baseline body functions like breathing, blood pressure, and heartrate. In the meantime, another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is involved in processing the context of the situation to determine valence. For me, my prefrontal cortex decides that the experience is positive—whereas someone else who’s not into roller coasters might decide it was a definite negative. Scientists have found that, along with life experiences, genes associated with dopamine signaling may be involved in variation in sensation-seeking behavior between different people.
It's Not Just Rollercoasters
Excitement isn’t just about physical thrills. You can get excited about food, experiences, relationships, or anything else that brings the promise of reward. Understanding what’s happening in the brain in a state of excitement is important in everyday situations as well. Excitement can enhance memory and attention, leading to more effective learning. It can make us more motivated to act on something we want or seek out greater risk, especially for young people. But that’s not always a bad thing. Being aware of what gets you excited, while managing the risks of your decisions, can ultimately help you and your brain learn and grow.