Head Game: Theories on why some skiers can risk it all

Comments by Tess Weaver/

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Mike Wilson is known for throwing backflips off massive cliffs during both winter and summer. In 2004, Wilson introduced freeskiing’s first off-axis double-flipping rotation—the Wilsonflip. His spinning doubles and triples off a mega rope swing he built over the Truckee River garnered half a million views on YouTube last summer, prompting the police to take the swing down. Last winter, he built the world’s biggest zip line by running 5,000 feet of cable 3,300 feet high across a canyon between two mountains. He zipped to the middle and BASE jumped off.

You might think Wilson is crazy. You might think he’s fearless. Why is he willing to put it all on the line? According to many psychologists, Wilson is a sensation seeker. Theories point to a pathological personality trait or a dopamine deficiency. Most research into the psychology of action sports has lumped participation in such sports with risky behaviors such as drug use.

But Wilson doesn’t fit the mold of the self-destructive thrill seeker. He is a highly trained individual. He’s been honing his skills for most of his life. Wilson has been a gymnast since he was a toddler. He was jumping his BMX bike into his own foam pit in the backyard at age 10. From ages 11 to 15, he spent four to five hours a day on the trampoline practicing tricks. He’s spent thousands of hours on skis, diving boards, trampolines, water ramps, rollerblades, cliffs, rope swings and zip lines. Wilson also meticulously plans and prepares to minimize his risk. He measures distances with a 300-foot tape measure and a rangefinder, he uses a GPS to drop waypoints and measure the distances, and he uses a radar gun and an accelerometer to calculate speeds. To pull off the zipline BASE project, he worked for two months on calculations.

Wilson always asks himself, “What can go wrong?” He only moves forward once he’s thought everything through and ensured there’s a safe way out in every scenario. “Once you’ve minimized risk, there’s no reason for fear,” says Wilson.

That doesn’t ring true for most skiers. It might be that Wilson’s brain has fewer dopamine-inhibiting receptors, and therefore, when he takes risks, his brain isn’t able to inhibit the neurotransmitter adequately and it’s flooded with the feel-good chemical. He’s probably hyperstimulated by novel experiences.

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Simon Dumont—pictured here waiting to drop into the X Games superpipe in Aspen, CO—knows a thing or two about calculated risk, breaking the world record for highest air in a quarterpipe in 2008, and organizing the “cubed pipe” shoot at Squaw Valley in 2011.

But studies linking action sports athletes with dopamine addiction have fueled the perception of athletes as reckless adrenaline junkies who heedlessly put their lives at risk to trigger the next rush. Eric Brymer, a kayak coach turned sports psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia knows the psychological stereotypes are an oversimplification. His research inquires into the experiences of the athletes themselves.

“What sets serious extreme athletes apart from high-sensation seeking junkies is preparation, knowledge of and honesty about personal capabilities—emotional and psychological—knowledge of their environment, their activity… and the ability to walk away,” he says.

Extreme sports are traditionally explored from a risk-taking perspective that often assumes that participants do not experience fear. Seth Morrison says there’s always a level of fear. “If you’re skiing the resort, then you go straight to Alaska, you’re going to be scared,” says Morrison. “If you ski in the backcountry throughout the season, you can build up to things. Someone once told me to watch a bunch of scary movies to scare the fear out of you.”

That fear, according to Brymer, is exactly what sets serious extreme athletes apart from your high-sensation seeking junkie.

“You just wouldn’t expect a thrill seeker to feel fear,” he says. “The ability to recognize fear and use it as information but still be able to function and undertake an activity in a rational way enables us to move through fear but still respect what fear is telling us. It’s courage because we have moved through intense fear and humility because we know that fear is telling us that this environment has the potential of killing.”

Athletes that set attainable goals within the range of their technical ability are more successful at channeling fear into focus, as opposed to fight, flight or freeze—the body’s typical response to a fear-induced adrenaline rush. Freezing up while skiing a big line could be catastrophic. The world’s best skiers, like Morrison, do not freeze with fear; instead their perceptions seem to open up, resulting in the same heightened sense of awareness and calmness associated with meditation.

“It’s a tunnel vision of concentration,” says Morrison. “Nothing else matters but the moment. Your body becomes numb to emotions. Sometimes it’s 30 seconds, sometimes it’s four hours, like on a complicated line in Chamonix.” Morrison lives for those moments of focus, in which he says he finds peace.

This mental state of complete involvement and focus, a loss of self-consciousness and a sense of passing time is what psychologists term “flow.” For centuries, practitioners of Eastern religions have sought flow through meditation. Brymer finds that many extreme athletes report transcendental flow experiences similar to those of meditation practitioners.

The term “flow” was conceived by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychology professor who served as the head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion, harnessing the emotions that help us to perform and learn. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled but are positive, energized and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy and peace while performing a task. Flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity—not even oneself or one’s emotions.

Sports psychologist Kim Cusimano at the UC Davis Sports Medicine Center references Csikszentmihalyi’s flow concept. “Athletes like Mike Wilson may just know how to enter the flow experience more easily,” she says. “Basically, letting something happen without the mind getting in the way.” Cusimano thinks Wilson’s brain operates differently in that it’s able to let go so far that fear isn’t there. She’s seen this similar capability among action sports athletes.

“They have that capacity to let go so much, their brain is no longer in the way,” she says.

Wilson says he skis the best when he doesn’t overthink it. “When it’s just natural instinct,” says Wilson. “The best I’ve ever skied was the day after I broke up with my girlfriend, and I hadn’t slept in 48 hours. If you have to think about it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.”

Brain researchers call this the default mode network, when the self-conscious, narrative aspects of thinking are missing. “There is just sensory and kinesthetic experience—pure reaction without deliberation,” says Arne Kozak, a professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

As Kozak describes, the basic maneuver is to move our brain activity from the prefrontal cortex to the motor and somatosensory strips of the brain (these run laterally and side-by-side to each across our heads from ear to ear). Experience that develops expertise is what can help us move from self-conscious action to action that is directed less consciously by the motor strip. “They have done studies, and the novice is very self-conscious while learning,” says Kozak. “That brain will be very active in the frontal cortex. The expert’s brain who may well be in ‘flow’ will be active in the motor strip. There is no sense of he or she actually doing the activity. ”In other words, mastery is the key to reducing self-consciousness.

According to scientists at the University of Regensburg in Germany, as soon as someone starts to practice a new sport, his brain begins to change, and the changes continue for years. As the brains of athletes become more efficient, they learn how to make sense of a new situation sooner.

“It’s a matter of experience,” says Wilson. “I grew up on skis. I was hitting 60-foot jumps at age 12, so it made sense that by the time I was 13, I could hit the 100-foot jump. It wasn’t a mental thing I had to overcome. The bigger I went, the more comfortable I got. I never felt like I was pushing myself. I have put in thousands of hours on skis. That’s the biggest difference between me and other people. It’s a matter of time spent on the hill.”

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Dumont soars at the 2013  X Games Aspen.

Morrison agrees, “We live what we do. The people who are weekend warriors, they lead a different life than we do. Their moments of skiing are every so often, ours are everyday.”

It’s also the case that we are born with individual differences in what we perceive as a threat. Some of this is also learned and developed through experience. Some of us will be more comfortable getting closer to that edge, while others will be more cautious. It’s a basic comfort difference with risk taking.

The answer may start with brain chemistry. In the ’90s, Israeli researchers identified a “risk” gene—behavioral coding that changes the reabsorption of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It affects how people responded to stress or anxiety. Basically, the higher your tolerance for those feelings, the more risk you can take on. But that accounts for only 10 percent of thrill-seeking behavior. The University of Delaware followed up with a study suggesting risk takers had lower levels of serotonin, another neurotransmitter that inhibits impulsive behavior.

In 2009, David Zald, a psychology professor at Vanderbilt University, performed some of the first tests on thrill-seeking personalities using PET scans. His subjects’ brains did have fewer autoreceptors (dopamine regulators) than the average human’s. The brain’s enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) keeps neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin in balance. A form of MAO called type B is particularly related to sensation seeking and to regulation of dopamine. The link between MAO and dopamine is notable in light of the fact that the dopamine D4 receptor gene has been connected to sensation seeking, and another dopamine receptor, D2, has been connected with substance abuse, a particular form of risk-taking behavior. He concluded high-sensation seekers have lower levels of MAO. Interestingly, levels of MAO are known to be higher in women than in men, and MAO levels in the brain and blood rise with age.

According to Erik Monasterio, a New Zealand medical doctor specializing in forensic psychiatry, people who excel in action sports appear to have a biological makeup that is different than the average person. These differences in brain chemistry help to explain why athletes put themselves in perilous situations. In Monasterio’s recent study “Personality Characteristics of BASE Jumpers” in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, he writes that extreme athletes with lower levels of circulating dopamine “may be in a state of under arousal, which may in turn contribute to engagement in risk-taking sports.”

Monasterio’s research found that the personality of climbers and BASE jumpers was different to that of average people. Climbers scored higher in the areas of novelty-seeking and self-directedness and lower on harm-avoidance. What this suggests is that climbers generally enjoy exploring unfamiliar places and situations. They are easily bored, try to avoid monotony and so tend to be quick-tempered, excitable and impulsive. They enjoy new experiences and seek out thrills and adventures, even if other people think that they are a waste of time. When confronted with uncertainty and risk, climbers tend to be confident and relaxed. Difficult situations are often seen by climbers as challenges or opportunities. Climbers also have good self-esteem and self-reliance and therefore tend to be high achievers.

“What these findings suggest is that biology and genetics play at least a moderate role in determining who will take up these sports,” says Monasterio. “We know that the amount of harm-Avoidance, Novelty-Seeking and Sensation-Seeking are inherited from our parents and are determined by the levels of a number of dopamine and serotonin.”

Although Morrison’s perceptions of what constitutes risk are different from the average person’s, his risks are still calculated, which sets him apart from a thrill seeker. Morrison says he skis within his comfort zone about 90 percent of the time. He feels he’s most at risk while filming.

“You’re crunched into a smaller time window. You’re worried about money. Other athletes are pushing. There are outside influences affecting your decisions. It’s similar to the freeride events. People are pushing it on days when they wouldn’t normally be skiing that stuff. When you’re doing it for yourself, you’re taking danger out of it. The fewer people, the fewer reason for things to go wrong.”

The only time Wilson has felt truly uncomfortable was when he hit a 185-foot jump in Aspen to break a world record. “I thought, I probably shouldn’t be doing this,” says Wilson. “I was in Whistler hitting a 120-foot jump, and I was prepared to hit a 140-foot jump. I showed up and it was 195 feet. Even when they got it down to 185 feet, I knew I shouldn’t do it. But there was a lot of money on the line and a lot of pressure.”

Wilson undershot the gap and was seriously injured. He pushed his heel bones through the muscles in the bottom of his feet, suffered partial tears in ligaments in both knees, broke his back in three places, collapsed a lung and broke his right thumb. Prior to the crash, he’d never broken a bone. “Now, I don’t let that happen,” he says. “I don’t hit anything unless I’m 100-percent comfortable.”

As the opportunities to challenge himself on skis wane, Wilson needs a different rush. Now, he gets more out of proving the impossible wrong. “For me, it’s more about doing things that haven’t been done or things people say can’t be done.”In terms of skiing, Wilson wants to hit jumps that are over 200 feet and learn tricks nobody has done before. He says he’d like to break the world record high dive (172 feet) by jumping from a height of over 200 feet.

There’s little in terms of measurable science when it comes to describing how the action sports athlete’s brain works. Brain imaging devices that can be used while someone is jumping off a cliff or skiing down a mountain are too basic and don’t explain much. Tests using heart meters have only recently begun. The science surrounding risk taking is still relatively new.

So are the world’s best skiers dopamine addicts or are they psychologically sound people who have mastered a sport? As in most things, the reality probably lies somewhere in the middle. Not everyone has the mental makeup to excel in dangerous pursuits, but those who do are, for the most part, highly calculating individuals who are prepared for the risks they take. “In my view, adventure sports are rewarding and exhilarating beyond the explanation of biology,” says Monasterio.

Involvement in risk-taking sports is clearly more fulfilling and profound than the simple thrill of a chemical release. As Morrison says, “I’m seeking enjoyment, fun and adventure. It’s not that I need to do something because it’s the gnarliest thing to do, I’m seeking a new experience.”

*This article originally appeared in the 2013 February issue of Freeskier. Subscribe to the magazine, or get it on the iTunes Newsstand.