Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sport and Competition

The Perils of Novelty Seeking

Proceed with caution when seeking adventure in extreme sports.

Christopher Bergland running 135-miles through Death Valley in July.

Are you a novelty seeker or adrenaline junkie? I am both. I get bored easily. Do you? Novelty Seeking (NS) is a personality trait associated with exploratory activity where someone seeks new and exciting stimulation and responds strongly from the surge of dopamine and adrenaline released when anyone has a novel experience.

Like many other character traits, there is a strong link between the degree of a person's Novelty Seeking that is held in our genes. Being high on the NS scale has been linked to high dopaminergic activity stimulated by reward and thrill seeking. That said, everybody needs some thrills in life to feel exuberant and fully alive.

Researchers have found that Novelty Seeking has an inverse relationship with other Temperament and Character Inventory dimensions, particularly harm avoidance. Novelty seeking is positively associated with the Big Five personality trait of "extraversion," and to a lesser extent “openness to experience,” but is inversely associated with "conscientiousness."

My need for novelty and the craving I have for new and exciting life experiences drove me to become an ultra-endurance athlete. My life philosophy could be summed up in the Kurt Vonnegut quotation, “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center."

Daily life in the modern work-a-day world can get really boring. Humans have evolved over millennia with a built in biological need to struggle for our survival and to bond with others in our close-knit groups as hunter-gatherers, farmers... Obviously, industrialization changed the type of work we have to do each day to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. The digital age has exacerbated these changes and is causing our bodies and minds to short circuit. Among other things, working alone in a windowless cubicle day-after-day disrupts your circadian rhythms which are directly linked to well-being.

People seek new life experiences in a variety of ways. How do you seek novelty? Does risky behavior get your juices going? How can we safely bring excitement and novelty into our lives without risking life and death? I realize this is a paradox of sorts because "safe novelty" is an oxymoron and won't give you much of an adrenaline rush. It's always going to be a tightrope walk between being overly cautious about avoiding harm and living your life to its full potential by taking chances and stepping outside your comfort zone.

What Drives Extreme Athletes to Risk Life and Death?

In a previous Psychology Today blog I explore the parallels between my drive as an ultra-endurance athlete to the ‘summit fever’ mountain climbers succumb to which drives them to risk death to stand on the top of Mt. Everest or K2 for a few moments. As an ultra-endurance athlete, I got sucked into the ‘excelsior vortex’ of wanting to push myself ever higher and farther, even at the risk of killing myself.

Christopher Bergland
Source: Christopher Bergland

For over a decade of my life, I obsessively pushed the envelope to break new ground by doing things like winning 3-triple Ironman triathlons, running 135-miles through Death Valley in July and breaking a Guinness Book of World Records by running 153.76-miles in 24 hours on a treadmill at Kiehl’s in Manhattan. Pushing my mind and body to the absolute human limit was a rush and became like a drug for me. Everything else in my life fell to the sidelines.

I retired from athletic competition—after breaking the world record—when I found myself in the ICU at the Beth Israel Hospital for 5 days on the verge of kidney and heart failure.

During the treadmill run I developed elevated levels of CPK of 177,000 units per liter (normal is 24 to 195 IU/L) which caused my kidneys to shut down. CPK is a byproduct of muscle breakdown and is a gloppy and viscous substance that blocks the filtering screens of the kidneys. After the 24 hour treadmill run, my CK-MB (an enzyme that measures heart muscle breakdown with a normal range of 0 to 24.4 ng/ml) was at 770 “nanograms” per milliliter.

Just as an FYI: running 6 marathons in 24 hours is not good for your health. It literally almost killed me. Running for 24 hours non-stop would fall under the "don't try this at home" category of warnings.

Novelty Seeking and the Boom in Extreme Obstacle Course Events

One of the latest ways people are seeking novelty in a controlled environment is through extreme obstacle course events. In recent years, obstacle races have had a boom of popularity that may be unprecedented in the history of sports. In 2010, only about 41,000 people entered the 20 obstacle racing events that were taking place in the US. In 2013, 1.5 million people are expected to participate in the 150 obstacle course events taking place nationwide.

Unfortunately, a new study has found that these obstacle course events have the potential to result in life threatening injuries. The study titled "Unique Obstacle Race Injuries at an Extreme Sports Event: A Case Series" was published on November 15, 2013 in Annals of Emergency Medicine.

The authors describe “The Tough Mudder” as a 10- to 12-mile course in a class of endurance obstacle courses known as MOB (mud, obstacles, beer) runs. The authors say “Since its inception by an entrepreneur and the first event in 2010, it has expanded from 3 to 35 locations and has had 700,000 participants worldwide. Unlike competitive timed races focused on individual performance, an obstacle course may be more likely to challenge stamina and build camaraderie through the teamwork required to successfully proceed through the obstacles and complete the course.”

The authors of the new study said that there are 20 to 25 obstacles that participants may jog between in the course; the sequence and exact selection are kept secret until the event day. Popular obstacles include “Electroshock Therapy,” in which participants must run through mud and water while dodging electrical wires delivering 10,000 volts of electric shock, and “Walk the Plank,” a 15 foot high jump into freezing water. The dangers of this obstacle were reported on extensively in the media after the accidental death of a participant in West Virginia.

"No training on earth can adequately prepare participants for elements such as jumping from a nine-foot height or running through a field of electrical wires while wet and hot," said lead study author Marna Rayl Greenberg, DO MPH, of Lehigh Valley Hospital and Health Network in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Greenberg said, "The volume and severity of injuries in the Tough Mudder race we studied was unusually high, possibly leading to some permanent disabilities. The 1.5 million people who are predicted to enter obstacle races like this in the next year should be well aware of the risks they are taking."

The paper describes the injuries sustained by various participants. One patient, who had received 13 electrical shocks during the last obstacle in the Tough Mudder, had multiple burn marks from electrical injuries and inflammation of the heart muscle. After being treated in the emergency department, he was admitted to the hospital.

The second patient had sustained multiple electrical shocks to the head while running through water, which resulted in fainting and altered mental status. After being treated in the emergency department, he was admitted to the hospital.

The third patient, after completing 20 out of 22 obstacles, developed seizure-like activity and altered mental status. He was unable to move his entire right side. After treatment in the emergency department, he was admitted to the intensive care unit with "Todd's Paralysis" and discharged from the hospital to a rehabilitation center fout days later. Six months after the injury, he still had lower right leg disability.

Patient number four sustained face and head injuries after being struck by two electrical cords and landing face first in a hard mound of dirt. He was treated at the emergency department and discharged against medical advice.

A 25-year-old woman who sustained an electrical shock to the chest just before the finish line, after which she was given a beer to drink, was admitted to the hospital for dehydration and rhabdomyolysis, or muscle breakdown, according to the report.

"In the past few years, obstacle racing has experienced a rate of growth that may be unprecedented in the history of participatory sports," said Dr. Greenberg. "Organizers, participants and local emergency services need to be prepared for a large number of diverse injuries at Tough Mudder and other similar obstacle races."

Conclusion: Balancing Safety with Novelty Seeking is Ideal

Seeking novelty is important for keeping life exciting and for pushing your personal boundaries. Nobody wants to be a somnambulist sleep walking through his or her daily routine on autopilot. I have no regrets about pushing myself to the outer edges of human potential through extreme sports. That said, I'm lucky to still be alive and there are certain things I would never do again.

Regardless of someone's degree of NS tendencies, everyone needs to walk the tightrope between living a life of safety or complacency while also pushing the envelope in some ways without risking self destruction or injury. Finding the sweet spot between mediocrity and novelty seeking is an individual process.

The authors of this new study hope that their report brings attention and encourages a public health initiative to explore the potential for injury in obstacle course events, as well as the best method of safety monitoring, particularly in regard to electrical hazards. They conclude that further study should include a robust number of events to establish true injury patterns. Additionally, the authors believe that future provisions for enhancing the advanced life support medical coverage at obstacle course events is important.

More from Christopher Bergland
More from Psychology Today