Tag Archives: Cynthia Thomson

Do We Have An Adventure Gene?

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Cynthia Thomson testing her theories on Mont Blanc

Cynthia Thomson testing her theories on Mont Blanc

Listen now

Listen now

Why do some athletes reach for the extreme while others enjoy safer, less thrilling pursuits? Is it nature, nurture or a combination of both? Ask most world-class extreme athletes and they’ll tell you some version of the same story. They’d always loved getting close to the edge, pushing themselves to their limits even as young children, driving their parents sick with worry. Once introduced to their chosen sport, they followed it passionately, stopping at nothing to pursue their dreams.

Do they possess an “adventure gene” driving them forward or is there something else going on? University of British Columbia PhD Cynthia Thomson set out to discover just what made these athletes tick. Her recent study of 500 skiers found surprising results. Turns out action sports athletes, like skiers, take up dopamine—one of the brain chemicals associated with reward—in a very different way. Dopamine, along with it’s sister reward drugs seratonin and norepinephrine, keep us humans on the path to seek rewards by doling out the good feelings associated with these chemicals. Ski a double black diamond run, get a hit of dopamine. Give a speech in front of a large crowd, get some seratonin. The brain wants us to push ourselves to be our best. Incidentally, this is the very same high drug users are seeking, but in an ironic twist, the more one uses drugs, the less thrill the body receives each time. Natural highs, on the other hand, act differently.

Thomson found that natural highs, however, are not the same for everyone. Those that seek more thrills, might actually be getting a smaller high every time, thereby skiing the extremes in order to get the same reward others would get on the bunny slopes. Thomson found that the dopamine receptor DRD4 has a variant in the -521 C/T polymorphism. Those with this variant tend to be sensation seekers. Some are even calling this gene variant the “adventure gene.” Thomson claims, however, that thrill seeking is a polygenic activity, or one that brings several genes into play. Furthermore, one’s upbringing can have a major impact on their choice of sport. I was raised in a skiing family (thank God); but had my parent’s been bowlers, I may have followed their path.

Kircher-show-descriptionThis week on The Edge, I’m talking to Dr. Thomson about skiing, sensation seeking and the “adventure gene.” Don’t miss this show, Wednesday at 8 a.m. Pacific, when Dr. Thomson explains the implications of this ground-breaking research.

Doing it for the Thrill

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Verbier Extreme Spectators

Verbier Extreme Spectators

“Sensation-seekers”, according to psychologists, fill their days with thrilling adventures and novel experiences. Their brains seek more sensation, more of a dopamine kick, more of that optimal flow moment than the rest of the population.

Psychologists have been watching sensation seekers for decades, comparing skydivers to reckless drivers and gamblers, lumping them all together into a wide category of “risk-takers”. Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman created a personality test for sensation seeking, check it out and see where you stack up.

Neuroscientists have recently dipped into the “sensation-seeking” brain and found more enlightening discoveries. I recently interviewed Cynthia Thomson of the University of British Columbia for my upcoming book on action sports. Thomson focused her PhD study on skiers and dopamine. Dopamine is the brain’s way of offering motivation in the form of a reward. It provides that nice kick of good-feeling reverie after we accomplish something big. And it turns out, not all brains handle dopamine the same way. Thomson found that skiers tend to have a variant of the DRD4 dopamine receptor that affects the way their brain handles dopamine. In other words, they needed more thrill to get the same kick.

Just another day in Chamonix

Just another day in Chamonix

Where psychologists and neuroscientists diverge is by lumping together athletes and addicts. In Thomson’s initial study, she didn’t separate them either. But she was able to determine the difference in later work. In addition to being sensation-seekers, addicts also score high for impulsivity. This is not so for high-risk athletes. At least not the ones that stick around. Just imagine an action sport athlete that was also highly impulsive. He or she wouldn’t be around long. Involvement in a risky sport, such as skiing, skydiving or surfing requires careful planning and extensive training. Anyone jumping off cliffs without first checking the landing (acting impulsively) isn’t going to live very long. Impulsivity tends to fade as we age, whereas sensation-seeking remains more stable.

Stevens Pass Boundary warning

Stevens Pass Boundary warning

I believe that as we get older and log more experiences our judgement overrides our impulsivity. This is evident in my job as a ski patroller and EMT. I’ve seen enough head injuries to wear a helmet while skiing. I’ve watched avalanches rip down slopes and break apart trees enough times to choose my line carefully. In many ways, I’ve gained judgement by learning from others’ mistakes. But I’ve also had my fair share of close calls.

My new book project, which I’m calling Crystalized: Finding Clarity on the Edge (but that title probably won’t last, so don’t bother googling it just yet) will take a look at the hows and whys of participation in action sports. I will especially look at my own experiences with dopamine-inducing sports and try to determine where I stack up against the experts. Most of the time I wonder what they have that I don’t have. Why are they able to huck bigger jumps, surf bigger waves, run scarier rapids and overall scare the shit out of me watching them from the near sidelines? Maybe it’s their DRD4 dopamine receptors. Or perhaps it’s their training. Or maybe I’m just a natural born scaredy-cat in comparison.

The best part about this book is the opportunity to interview some amazing athletes and brilliant scientists. I will be sharing some of these interviews here. I will also start hosting a radio show next month at Voice America, an internet radio site, where I will have many of them as guests on the show. (Hopefully you will join me for those interviews.)

Cynthia Thomson’s research suggests that some individuals need more thrill than others. If so, she posits that skiing and other action sports offer a viable avenue for sensation seeking, rather than the more destructive types of negative risks often associated with the term. Either way, her research shows there could be a genetic link to sensation seeking after all.

As if I needed another reason to go skiing.