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    How amusement parks hijack your brain

    They’re perfectly engineered to push psychological buttons you didn’t even know you had. Here’s how.

    Step right up and enjoy the ride, as we take you inside the anatomy of a typical amusement park: a machine engineered for your conscious and subliminal delight, surprise, and excitement, right up until it’s time to head back to the real world. Introduction: How amusement parks hijack your brain


    Thrill rides are the spiritual heart of the modern amusement park. Why do so many people enjoy being made to feel like they could die at any second? One theory emphasizes how good we feel after we return to solid ground, our bodies intact. But as any dedicated thrill-seeker will tell you, the experience itself—the radical narrowing of one’s attention, the feeling of time slowing down—can be its own source of pleasure. A pair of Dutch design experts from the Delft University of Technology argued in a recent paper that this altered state comes from pairing mortal fear with a “protective frame” that assures people they are safe. Citing the work of British psychologist Michael Apter, they suggest this state can be its own reward: “potentially refreshing, enchanting, empowering, exciting, or profound.”


    One roller coaster at Six Flags New England plunges you into Batman’s world; on another you fight Bizarro. Just a bunch of licensing deals? Not quite. Immersive, otherwordly rides date back to the origins of amusement parks. According to historian Josephine Kane, parks divert us in part by giving us access to experiences that feel beyond the bounds of reality. A century ago this often meant rides that simulated travel to exotic places. These days, travel no longer feels so removed from everyday life. Having superpowers does.


    An amusement park may not seem like the most romantic place on earth, but research suggests it’s a better spot for a date than you’d think: anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of “Why We Love,” says people are more likely to become attracted to each other in situations that are novel and exciting. Research suggests people are at higher risk for falling in love on vacation, “processing novel stimuli and having novel pleasures,” according to Linden. A day at an amusement park has more of those than you normally get in a week.


    Many of the classic midway games are neatly engineered to capitalize on what Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden calls the “near-miss effect”—the thrill of getting so close to victory you can taste it. That plastic ring you nearly looped around one of those glass bottles? The softball just bouncing out of the milk can? It’s no ordinary failure; it’s a failure designed to give you a jolt of pleasure—one that pushes you to take just one more shot. And then another.

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    Many iconic carnival games are hard because they demand unfamiliar skills, like hitting a target with a squirt gun until the balloon on top explodes. Learning those skills exerts a particular pull on us, according to Chris Lewis, an expert on addictive games. Citing the concept of “flow theory,” Lewis said there’s an almost euphoric state of mind induced by a game that makes you feel like you’re progressively improving. “It’s when a game hits that sweet spot, where the player thinks, ‘I’m not succeeding at this yet but I feel like I could’—that’s when you keep handing the money over.”


    Even those frustrating lines contribute to our experience, research suggests. When people see a long line, they tend to conclude that whatever lies at the end of it must be pretty valuable. If done right, waiting in line can even boost your enjoyment of the overall experience: A 2010 study published in the Journal of Marketing Research found that amusement park guests who focused on the number of people behind them in line expressed more excitement about the ride they were going on, and were more likely to enjoy it, than those who focused on the number of people in front of them.


    Typically, maps and signposts succeed by being direct and efficient. Not so at amusement parks. “You want to encourage wandering and serendipity and spending money,” said Chris Calori, author of the book “Signage and Wayfinding Design.” And yet, said expert Mark VanderKlipp, it is important that visitors can easily find the nearest bathroom or food stand. Hence the curious hybrid known as the amusement park map, a cartoonish rendering without any straight lines from point A to point B—but where the facilities are clearly and unmistakably marked.


    Many of us wouldn’t stuff ourselves with cheese fries, funnel cake, and cotton candy under normal circumstances. But according to social psychologists, being surrounded by huge groups of strangers tends to break down impulse control: We feel anonymous, less like ourselves, and more inclined to indulge in behaviors we wouldn’t otherwise. And even if you feel strong, watch out: A 2010 study from the University of Georgia showed that being around people with poor self-control is contagious.

    ILLUSTRATIONS: Doug Chayka for The Boston Globe

    Leon Neyfakh / Globe Staff; Olivia Hall for The Boston Globe