The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

The Addictive Nature of Adrenaline Sports

Ever wondered about the addictive nature of adrenaline sports?

If you’ve ever wondered about the addictive nature of adrenaline sports, you might be interested in checking out the Matchstick Productions Ski Movie: “Yearbook.” It’s available via Netflix and while the vast majority of folks would probably rather watch paint dry than see a ski movie, my advice is to check it out anyway. Even if you’re not a skier, you’ll want to see footage of Shane McConkey ski-BASE jumping off the Eiger.

What the hell is ski-BASE jumping you might wonder?

Before I answer that question, you should first know a thing or two about the rush of action sports. A little while back, I called Dr. Michael Davis, an Emory University neuroscientist who specializes in fear, to ask after the notion of the adrenaline junky.

“Fear is an incredibly strong emotion,” Davis told me. “If something scares us, the body immediately releases endorphins, dopamine and norepinephrine. Endorphins mitigate pain, dopamine and norepinephrine are performance enhancers. There haven’t been direct studies on so-called action sports, but the general scientific thinking is that the more fearful a certain sport makes you, the greater the release of these chemicals. The greater the release of these chemicals, the greater the addiction-like symptoms.”

It also helps to remember that cocaine—long considered the most addictive substance on earth—does nothing more than flood the brain with dopamine. Norepinephrine, on the other hand, mimics the second most addictive drug on earth: speed.

Nor are our neurochemicals one to one matches for these illicit drugs. In fact, they’re significantly more powerful. The most common endorphin produces by the body is 100 times more powerful (thus more addictive) than morphine.

Which is to say, the particular neurochemicals produced by action sports are far more potent than any drug single drug around and—since one cannot cocktail massive amounts of speed, cocaine, and heroin without ending up dead—adrenaline sports are really the only way to get this kind of taste.

The problem with action sports and adrenaline junkies is that, as Emory Universities Dr. Greg Berns figured out (for more on this check out Berns’ excellent work “Satisfaction”), you need risk to trigger reward and the body gets used to risk. In other words, just like drug addicts who need to take more and more of a substance to get back to the level of high they desire, action sports addicts need to up their danger quotient to achieve the same effect.

This brings us back to Shane McConkey. Long considered one of the greatest skiers alive, McConkey made his name in ‘big mountain’ skiing. Big Mountain skiing is exactly as it sounds—he likes to ski the hardest lines down the biggest mountains. Often times skiing these lines also involves dropping off of massive cliffs along the way.

When you spend decades of your life dropping off cliffs for fun, trying to do something scary enough to produce one’s desired high is a bit of a challenge. Which explains why McConkey has added BASE jumping into the equation.

BASE jumping is a form of sky-diving off fixed objects. BASE itself being an acronym that stands for categories of launch sites (Building, Antenna, Span, Earth, with Earth being a stand in cliff jumps). Because these objects are considerably closer to the earth than normal sky-diving drops (and because less falling time means less room for error) BASE-jumping is widely considered the most dangerous sport on earth.

But McConkey isn’t content to merely BASE jump. Instead, he likes to ski impossibly steep lines (think well over 55 degrees, with a normal double black diamond run being around 43 degrees) that end in gargantuan cliffs. So high has his need for risk become that he’s combined two of the most dangerous sports known to man into one seriously psychotic behavior.

Which is to say, watching McConkey launch himself off the Eiger isn’t just an astounding athletic firs, it’s arguably the most picturesque example of the addictive nature of the fight-or-flight response ever captured on celluloid.

Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.


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