Enormous heights, sharp turns, stomach-lurching drops… These are only part of the fear and excitement involved with riding a roller coaster. How exactly do roller coasters work, and what psychological effects do they have on those who choose to ride them?
There is a significant amount of physics involved in the operation of roller coasters. In short, the energy of a roller coaster is always changing. As a roller coaster climbs up a large hill, it builds up what is known as potential energy. The coaster’s potential energy reaches its maximum at the top of the hill. This energy is then released when the roller coaster descends; at this point in time, it is known as kinetic energy. Throughout the process in which the roller coaster is climbing and descending, gravity is constantly pushing downward on the cars of the coaster. An article on HowStuffWorks further explains the complicated physics behind roller coasters. Click here to view an animation that illustrates the changes in potential and kinetic energy.
Although the physics behind roller coasters is extremely interesting, I found the psychological aspects of the ride to be much more intriguing. I have always wondered, why are we attracted to the thrill and fear that roller coasters tend to provide? According to Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University, many of those who enjoy riding roller coasters experience an otherwise stressful or strictly-controlled lifestyle. For many, the coaster is capable of providing an escape… A break from the monotony of daily life.
Other psychologists suggest that riding a roller coaster is an experience in which riders can challenge themselves. At the conclusion of the roller coaster, the rider may feel as if they have accomplished something, such as overcoming a deep fear. It is often difficult for us to challenge ourselves and escape our comfort zone. However, although it may be extremely frightening during the process, riding a roller coaster is ultimately a safe way to challenge ourselves.
Lastly, many are attracted to roller coasters simply because they are naturally thrill-seeking. Many enjoy the sensation of the adrenalin rush that comes with riding a roller coaster or other amusement park rides. For many, the concept of “controlled danger” is appealing. It has also been proven that many are even more attracted to the feeling that occurs after the roller coaster concludes. A hormone known as noradrenaline is released in order to restore the body back to normal, resulting in feelings of pleasure and peace.
For many, roller coasters are a bonding experience. Whether one chooses to ride with a family member, a friend, or a significant other, sharing the thrill-packed experience of a roller coaster can bring people closer together.
Riding a roller coaster demonstrates a variety of concepts in physics and psychology. It is clear that roller coasters are capable of serving as a valuable and positive experience for riders around the world.