Extreme Psychology

There may be more to high-risk sports than a “no fear” mantra.

Rock climbing and other extreme sports put athletes at risk of serious injury or death. Psychologists are
studying the reasons that drive people to such extremes. [Credit: Carl A, flickr.com]
By | Posted July 13, 2009
Posted in: Social Science
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Rich Gottlieb lumbers through his rock-climbing store, slightly favoring his right side. He’s dressed in a black sweat suit and a heavy pair of hiking boots. Dark circles under his eyes cast a weary shadow across his face. Gingerly, he touches his back, on the right side, just below the rib cage. “I got smashed up,” he says.

Gottlieb, who’s been rock and ice climbing in the Adirondack Mountains of New York for 35 years, has taken his lumps. His most recent injury, a collapsed lung and a puncture wound the size of a bullet hole in his back, came after an ice-climbing fall. “I wasn’t in the moment,” he says. “I was talking to some people and just fell off.”

Psychologists might classify Rich Gottlieb as a sensation-seeker based on how he chooses to spend his free time, risking his life for a sport. To those who don’t participate in an extreme sport, putting one’s safety in danger for a leisure activity seems absurd, even crazy. Explanations in the scientific literature for sensation-seeking have been many and varied, from a pathological personality trait to a malfunctioning gene or a gender issue. But Gottlieb doesn’t fit the stereotype of a young, impulsive guy out for some cheap thrills and an adrenaline rush. At 57, he’s been honing his climbing skills for more than half his life, like an artist — practicing, pondering, and carefully planning each climb.

Gottlieb’s extreme sport experiences resonate with those of sports psychologist Eric Brymer at the University of Queensland in Australia. As the former Welsh national team’s free-style whitewater kayaking coach, Brymer came to realize that his athletes didn’t fit the mold of the self-destructive thrill-seeker described in the existing literature. He began asking extreme athletes about their experiences and found that the psychological stereotype was an over simplification: extreme sports participation can be a powerful, life-enhancing endeavor.

In the last thirty years, extreme sports participation in the United States alone has more than tripled. Brymer has found that partaking in high-risk sports may result in a number of benefits including not only increased courage, but also less obvious gifts such as humility and calmness. Classified by most psychologists as sensation-seekers, portrayed in the media as daredevils and marketed with mantras like “No fear” and “Go big,” it’s hard to imagine skydivers, BASE jumpers (athletes that parachute from stationary points like buildings or cliffs), or ice climbers as Zen-like. This, according to Brymer, is because most research into the psychology of extreme sports has lumped participation in dangerous sports with risky behaviors such as sex and drug addictions, while failing to inquire into the experiences of the athletes themselves.

The Sensation-Seeking, Extreme Sports Link

Since 1983, when Marvin Zuckerman, one of the modern fathers of sensation-seeking theory, reported that skydivers, hang-gliders and scuba divers were high up on the sensation-seeking behavior continuum along with gamblers and drug addicts, much of the research concerning extreme sports psychology has concentrated on this link — sensation-seeking as a negative personality trait. As defined by Zuckerman, sensation-seeking is the pursuit of novel and intense experiences without regard for physical, social, legal or financial risk. Indeed, scientists have discovered some similarities between the brains of drug users and high sensation-seeking athletes.

For instance, psychologist Ingmar Franken demonstrated in a 2006 study that a drug addict’s inability to experience joy or pleasure from everyday activities such as eating, exercise or social interaction when they aren’t getting high can also occur in individuals whose brains are used to being hyper-stimulated by the “natural high” of skydiving. Franken, of Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands, saw a higher instance of these withdrawal symptoms in skydivers who scored high on Zuckerman’s Sensation-Seeking Scale, a personality questionnaire aimed at helping researchers identify subjects who might be predisposed to taking big risks. Ecstasy-users and bungee-jumpers were compared in a 2004 study that aimed to view similarities in the way these two groups rationalize their risky behaviors. The study found that members of both circles justify participation by minimizing risk through practice and preparation and ignoring possible consequences such as brain damage, severe injury or death.

The connection between high sensation-seeking athletes and high sensation-seeking drug users comes down to brain chemistry, according to Michael Bardo, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky who studies the neurochemistry of sensation-seeking. Dopamine, a chemical associated with the brain’s pleasure reward system, seems to be the major player.

High sensation-seekers may be hyper-stimulated by novel experiences because their brains release more dopamine during these events than those of low sensation-seekers. “Everyone is wired to pay attention to things that are new in their environment,” says Bardo, “but it’s a matter of degree. People that are sensation-seekers tend to be more stimulated [by novelty].” The result of this dopamine flood is an intensely pleasurable experience that has the sensation-seeker coming back for more.

Adolescent males are the most likely subset of the population to partake in risky behaviors. This is because in adolescent males, the brain’s reward system develops long before the inhibitory system, which keeps impulsive, novelty-seeking behaviors in check. The inhibitory system doesn’t catch up with the rewards system until young men hit their early twenties. This leaves some young males who are genetically predisposed to high sensation-seeking susceptible to the lures of risky activities, like using drugs or jumping impulsively into a dangerous sport without thinking through the consequences first.

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Posted in: Social Science

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  1. Very good story. It really gives a different perspective of people many of us would consider “crazy,” yet they are more accurately highly trained athletes with clear focus on detail, technical skills, and most importantly safety.

    Scott, July 13, 2009 at 2:43 pm
  2. Very good story Lindsey. As you know I’ve been anxious about it because I was so curious as to what you found. It’s interesting to me that my comments matched fairly closely with the research being done.

    I found the part about flow particularly interesting. In my undergraduate studies I was a double major in philosophy and religious studies. I remember a moment in my Zen Buddhism class when I was talking to the professor about whether or not I was practicing my meditation outside of class. My response was that there are many ways to meditate, to focus the mind and to reach a state of no thought. Whether skiing, climbing, or kayaking, outdoor sport has always been my method for reaching that state of spiritual connection.

    Thanks for putting this together, it’s really interesting.

    Allan Warren, July 13, 2009 at 5:04 pm
  3. hello..
    Now I want to write research about “Meaning life of Extreme Sport People”. I need reference. can you help me??? I need result of any research about it. journal or ebook. (sorry if my vocabullary and Grammar is not good, I can’t speak English so well). Sorry if I bother you and thankyou for your attention.

    neva, April 4, 2010 at 3:35 am
  4. Can you please tell me how to get in touch with the photographer of the picture used on Lindsey Konkel’s article posted July 13, 2009. I want to get permission to use that rock climbing/repelling picture.


    Patrick Boyer, July 5, 2010 at 12:43 pm
  5. Good article. I am a therapist who treats individuals with drug addiction. I’m also interested in High Sensation Seekers as well as Highly Sensitive People. From what I have gathered, Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, there is actually a type of individual who is Highly Sensitive and also a High Sensation Seeker. A person with both traits is likely to take very calculated and thoughtful risks, and being intelligent and often creative, will take those risks that would cause “normal” human beings to think they are crazy, when in fact, they can see, hear, feel and sense things that others are not able to. This will assist in them being able to handle difficult and risky adventures.

    Laurie T, January 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm
  6. Good luck trying to understand it from the outside.

    “Death plays a huge role in why men climb, in the way they climb and why some of them eventually quit climbing in the high mountains. Alpinism often means high risk and the loss of life. Your friends may die up there in the clouds, in storms, swept away by avalanches, or cowering under a volley of stones. Perhaps they’ll freeze to death alone at the bottom of a deep, dark crevasse or sit down to rest and never get up again. This is the long fall, where the sky is rose and the mountains have never been as beautiful as they are today. Life bleeds away from a head injury, unnoticed. It’s about climbers dying doing what they love and spectators speculating, judging, and maybe having the last word. Alpinism is the story of men and the risks men take, the ones they are equal to, the ones they barely get away with, and those risks that kill them. It is about obsession. The danger and the glory, the addiction of going harder, higher, longer. Sometimes we get away with it, we survive when others do not.”

    Shane Rathbun, October 26, 2011 at 8:14 pm
  7. A nicely written article with balance that asks that all important question of why risk your life? One thing that isn’t mentioned and seems obvious to non sensation seekers is that we feel strongly attached to our lives and the meaning of life. This would make, I think, one of the most interesting avenues to explore next – how to attach people to their lives so that they can get that high level of dopamine response from just breathing. Many people can get highs from ordinary pleasures such as a second biscuit with their cup of tea (read Bill Bryson – Notes From a Small Island – for a description of just that!) so you have to assume that it is possible and the neat trick would be to realign brain chemistry to allow people to get to that state without the need for external stimulus. Meditation can get you there and I can’t help feeling that some use of extreme sports may be nothing more than putting pressure on the individual to concentrate intensely. Although claims of extreme physical activity being a way to get into ‘the zone’ perhaps that’s because it may be a short cut to getting in ‘the zone’ This would make a strong link between a group of people who also drink, take drugs etc because that personality type is tuned to using short cuts to pleasure. Humans naturally tend to find the simplest way of reaching their goals unless the insula provides inhibition.

    Clare Mundy, July 18, 2012 at 4:16 am
  8. I’d like to try out flying from above the sky, and then surviving the fall to tell everyone what it felt like. It’s the feeling of cheating death that sometimes gives the high, same as proving that you’re in control and not anyone else is–not even higher being that whether or not exists.

    Yahn :), July 19, 2012 at 9:49 am
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    memory improvement tips, February 20, 2013 at 10:13 am
  10. Reading about this, people who have high achievement to the other extreme, fear of failure, anxiety, depression and other mental illness, I am highly convinced that the primary neurotransmitter “if control” in the brain is Dopamine. For example, I think they are totally wrong with the medical industry to focus on Serotonin. When we know anti depressants don’t work in 3/4 of the people for depression and anxiety. However, give anyone a *small* dose of Adderall or Amphetamine. All of sudden that person acts like their true self…the fear, anxiety, and depression lifts like magic. I know this sounds off topic, however, lately everything seems to focus on Dopamine in all aspects of Psychology. It is interesting to see people struggling severely in therapy, then a subtle increase in dopamine and *all of a sudden* they are in touch with themselves and like they never had a problem at all doing more fearful things that caused the problems in the first place. The biggest problem is that there is more than Dopamine and the drugs, like extreme sports that enhance it are addictive, the anti depressants they have now don’t do much because depression usually improves in 4-6 weeks anyways with the placebo effect. Dopamine I believe controls everything in the mind. All the other chemicals are “subsystems”

    Trevor33, March 3, 2013 at 8:09 pm
  11. I came across this article when searching for information on HSP’s (highly sensitive persons) who are athletes, as I consider myself both. I have done various extreme sports for many years at a moderate level.
    As an HSP I will analyze things to death before doing them, and usually avoid over-stimulation in my everyday life. I’m the first one home from every party and can find pleasure in very small things. At the same time, taking on and mastering a physically risk-filled situation gives me intense and lasting pleasure, a very joyful feeling of privilege. The only way I can describe it is the feeling of making the impossible possible. Maybe this is true for other so-called “sensation seekers”, we’re not so much seeking “sensation” as the otherworldly feeling of mastering the impossible.

    climber, May 7, 2013 at 8:38 am
  12. I have known a lot of extreme sport athletes over the years and many were. or are drug addicts alcoholics etc. I have wondered many times if there was some sort of corralation between the two. and I was correct in my assumptions. Great article BTW Michael Maltese

    Michael Maltese, November 6, 2014 at 3:14 pm
  13. Very interesting article. Thanks for this!

    I am a skydiver, and am very interested in the brain activity and psycology of individuals who share a passion for my sport. To date, I have never met a community of individuals as full of compassion, humour, honesty, and gratitude towards life than i have with the skydiving community.

    I have never had addiction problems. I have a fascination with human behaviour and human potential. I wish there were more studies done on the minds of extreme athletes.

    If anyone would like to personally delve into this topic in more detail, by all means, feel free to email me. I would gladly answer any questions…about our sport or about myself.


    ROBERT MCKERCHER, October 12, 2015 at 2:09 pm
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