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]
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.