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Adrenaline Junkies

July 26, 2011

*first published January ’11 on

There’s a common misconception that people who get involved in extreme sports
do so because they crave adrenaline, and the ‘thrill’ of nearly dying.  It’s a
great soundbite, but anyone who’s been up close and personal in a war zone, or in
a dark alley with an armed assailant, will probably be first in line to tell you
that nearly dying isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and not in the top ten of
‘thrilling’ things to do.  So what’s really going on?  What is it that base
jumpers, race car drivers, surfers, snowboarders and extreme ironers (fact) keep
coming back for?

Well, what they’ve done is turn the body’s ancient defence mechanism now
coined ‘fight or flight’, and turned it in to a game – a very addictive one.
They’ve essentially become drug addicts, it’s juts a drug the body gives itself
they’re hooked on.  We cover the process of fear, adrenaline and fight or flight
in How Not to Get Hit – the parts of the brain involved, the sequences, the
chemicals, the effects of the chemicals – so we won’t go over it here again.
Suffice to say that extreme sports maniacs trick the body in to this fight or
flight response, by making the deep, subconscious part of the noggin think that
danger is very close, and death is a very real possibility.  The body’s response
is defend, or escape – and releases a torrent of nasty chemicals which
effectively give you a turbo boost.

All sounds very exciting, but that’s not the fun bit.  The fun bit comes
after, as once the body escapes from the imminent danger of certain death, the
brain gives it a big reward to say well done, and train it to want to give the
same response again – a bit like a puppy getting a biscuit for not weeing all
over the furniture.  It helps to think of the brain here as the owner of a
wayward puppy, and the body as said puppy – directionless, fun seeking, and
possessing no real faculties or reason of its own.  This reward comes in the
form of Dopamine, a morphine-like drug which activates all the pleasure centres
in the brain, so you start to develop an association between ‘escaping certain
death’ and ‘feeling nice’.

The flip side of this chemical release, and the fact that the body has
evolved to enjoy it and seek it out, is addiction.  If you’re entire physicality
and psychology is centred around seeking out this pleasurable response, which
biologically is linked to escaping predators and surviving as a species, then
drugs that can replicate this effect without the initial risk of death are
considered a ‘win-win’ situation for the human puppy.  We have, quite simply,
not evolved to differentiate between the pleasure created by surviving danger
after an adrenaline dump, and the pleasure created by a line of coke, a spliff,
or a needle.

Fascinating, that this imperative has grown from a mechanism that has very
successfully kept us alive for millenia, but is also responsible for cultural,
and physical decay because we haven’t evolved a response to drugs.  Fear, and
the caveman, don’t know what they’re up against.

One Comment
  1. Hi there, thanks for the comment! Sorry no no newsletters, just the blog but you can register to receive updates of new posts further down the page…


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