Cynthia Thomson, a climbing and skiing fanatic fresh from several seasons in Banff, wanted to know: are we hard-wired to ski? After being challenged by her UBC doctoral supervisor, genetics researcher Dr. Jim Rupert, she turned her inquiring mind towards her own friends. “Why do you guys spend your free time doing such risky activities,” he’d wondered. Maybe it was genetic?
Thomson focused on the “sensation-seekers” of the world—the people hanging out in mountain towns doing radical things like jumping off summits, out of airplanes or pinning lines down narrow couloirs—and their dopamine uptake.
Dopamine is the chemical in the brain responsible for the sensation of a “high.” Skiing fast, hucking a cliff, eating chocolate or being sexually aroused all have the same physiological effect. For some people, the greater the risks required to secure the high, the greater the sense of reward.
“What makes us seek out a challenge, even when we’re scared? We as humans are motivated by reward. We all like to feel good. But some people are willing to risk more in order to obtain that rush.
One theory states that we are all trying to attain our optimum level of arousal. Many people get their joys relatively easily by, say, a stroll on the beach, but others need a little extra stimulation in order to get that same feeling.
Whether they realize it or not, those constantly pursuing the edge might be in search of that dopamine fix. It’s a very powerful chemical and the temptation can sometimes overwhelm all reason.”
Unlike an unhealthy addiction, sensation-seeking athletes don’t score high on impulsivity. “Sensation seeking and impulsivity are normally grouped together,” explains Thomson. “But not in athletes. The general public thinks of the practitioners of these sports as reckless, but the athletes don’t see themselves that way. They say they take calculated risks. They just value the rewards and the sensation very highly. Instead of saying, oh, they’re crazy, I say, they just have a different need for stimulation.”
Her research found small association between sensation-seeking and a genetic variation in dopamine uptake (i.e. the rate at which dopamine is absorbed back into the body.)
Thomson completed her PhD in June and commenced last summer as a teaching fellow at Quest University in Squamish, even closer to the climbing and skiing that motivates her. Whether that makes her a victim to her own DNA or not, she doesn’t really mind.
Take This Quiz to See Whether You’re Actually an Incurable Adrenaline Junkie
Thomson’s research involved the analysis of DNA samples against personality profiles. I asked her how she would identify a fellow thrill-seeker at a dinner party. We put together this sneaky unscientifically validated quiz.
- When you’re riding your bike downhill, are you clutching the brakes the whole time?
a. Yes. I keep seeing myself going over the handlebars if I don’t slow down.
b. No. I quite enjoy the sensation of speed.
- Do you dislike the sense of temperature fluctuations against your skin?
a. Yes. I prefer a climate-controlled environment.
b. No. I quite like moody weather and changes in the temperature.
- Do you enjoy sports where the environmental conditions stay consistent?
a. Yes, I’d rather swim laps in a pool than in the ocean.
b. No, I don’t need to feel in control of the environment. I enjoy adapting to it.
- Are you cautious about trying new things?
a. Yes. I like to be in my comfort zone.
b. No. I enjoy novelty and challenge.
- Would you like to be more playful?
a. Will it hurt?
b. Of course.
If you answered b more than you answered a, I would say that you’re destined to be a skier or snowboarder.
Answering all a’s, of course, doesn’t mean you should be kicked off the hill.
As Dr. Thomson says, “Risk is relative and subjective. If skiing causes you anxiety and you’re going beyond your optimal level of arousal, you’ll know straight away that maybe it’s not the ideal sport for you. But you can still experience the thrill of the sport without jumping off cliffs. It’s really such a great chance to play. A lot of sports have a lot of rules and structure built in, but skiing is very free. It can be seen as an adult version of play, and we don’t get enough play. I think it can be beneficial to all levels of thrill-seeking.”