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Sport and Competition

Numb: The Psychology of Survival in Extreme Sports

Understanding emotions can make the difference between living or dying.

photo credit: Shayan

At 12,000 feet above the Rocky Mountain foothills in Colorado, a flight operator threw open the door and air rushed through the small plane. Never having seen a door open mid-flight, I was surprised it didn’t suck me out. This was my first time skydiving, and I pulled the short straw among my friends to go first. My instructor strapped me in and as we walked up the cabin to the door, he told me to jump out on the count of three. Above the drone of the wind and plane’s engine, I could still hear my heart thudding. Not only was I having second thoughts about jumping, but I didn’t even want to look down. But with my friends behind me and a chance to check off a life goal in front of me, I prepared for the longest fall of my life. The instructor began the count. “One, two,” and then he pushed me out the door before three.

I arched my back and spread my arms like wings to gain control of my body as I fell, just as we had practiced on the ground. The plan was to freefall for 45 seconds before pulling the cord to open the parachute. After what felt like 30 seconds, I reached my hand back and began to search for the ball at the end of the cord, at first calmly and then frantically as I failed to find it. As I felt panic begin to rush over me like the air I was plunging through, my instructor grabbed my hand and told me to wait before pulling the cord, as we had only been falling for 15 seconds. When the time came, he placed the ball in my hand and we deployed the chute, slowing our fall and carrying us safely to the ground.

My first skydive highlights the importance of good guidance when braving dangerous sports, but what if my instructor didn’t react well under stress? We trust guides to know what they’re doing, to be competent in all situations in these dangerous sports. However, some of them still make mistakes, sometimes deadly ones. How do we know who to trust?

Christine Le Scanff, a sport psychologist from Paris who has a blackbelt in aikido, recently visited the Paulus lab in San Diego, where I work, and shared her research on the personalities of risk takers, and why some of them lose control under pressure.

She became interested in the topic after looking at the statistics of how many mountain climbing guides in France, supposedly among the most skilled climbers in the country, had died in accidents that didn’t have to be fatal. The numbers were higher than she expected. These people were supposed to have control of their environment and know how to respond to crisis, but something went wrong.

Importantly, what distinguished the climbers who had died from those who lived? Many climbers faced perilous situations, but some made better decisions than others, despite the fact that they had similar training.

One guide she studied had been leading a small expedition over a snow covered peak when an avalanche swept over them, leaving all four members of the party buried in snow. The guide, not deep under the snow, got to the surface in about a minute. The other three members were under too much snow to dig their way out, but they were all carrying devices which allowed the guide to locate them in case of such an emergency. Yet, rather than try to unearth them himself, the guide chose to go down the mountain to seek help. He returned thirty minutes later, but it was too late. The other three climbers had frozen to death. If the guide had tried to uncover them, he may have saved their lives. There was plenty of time and he was able to locate them, but he just didn’t think to try it.

Le Scanff surveyed many guides and climbers who had experienced similar crises, some successfully and some not. She found that one of the most important distinctions between the climbers who survived and those who did not avert accidents was an ability to recognize their own emotions. In psychological terms, they were alexithymic, or deficient in processing emotions. Those who understood their emotions could recognize when they were afraid, relaxed or calm, and most importantly, they knew their limits. Climbers who could not identify their own feelings could not recognize when they were up against a challenge beyond their ability to overcome safely.

I asked her how to know if your guide would be likely to save you in an emergency, and when you should look for someone else. She said the most important thing is show-boating. She said that dangerous guides seek to impress you with their daring feats. The more they build themselves up, the more likely they are to let you fall in jeopardy. A good guide doesn't need to talk up his skills; he just executes when he has to.

How does egotism relate to alexithymia? Le Scanff suggested that it has to do with handling stress and emotional troubles. People who recognize when they’re upset make better efforts to deal with it. Those with more difficulty checking their emotional pulse may be unaware what, if anything, is wrong. Even if they don’t recognize their own anger, fear or sadness, it may affect their behavior. They may respond by taking risks.

Many of the dangerous guides Le Scanff studied had troubled family lives, such as difficult relationships with their parents. Strained relationships, which usually produce negative emotions, do not necessarily cause problems; it all depends on how the person copes.

People who acknowledge the problem usually find solutions that help resolve emotional discord. More alexithymic people, however, may ignore the negative emotions caused by the strained relationship, developing emotional numbness. Looking down the chasm of a large mountain elicits their emotions and may help them temporarily forget their troubles, even if it means taking risks beyond their ability. A kiss with death may help them feel alive, but if they fail to recognize their limits, their life may be cut short.

Le Scanff came to visit because alexithymia, the emotional detachment that has been a large part of her research, is similar to some of the ideas our lab uses to understand the brain’s role in problematic behavior. The part of the brain that monitors an individual’s emotional and physical state may fail to activate properly in some people, which may relate to drug use and anxiety. I will explore the brain’s role in a second post.

photo credit: Shayan

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