Do We Have An Adventure Gene?

Cynthia Thomson testing her theories on Mont Blanc

Cynthia Thomson testing her theories on Mont Blanc

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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.

10 responses »

  1. Interesting that there’s some science behind this. I remember hearing Terri Gross on Fresh Air ask Jon Krakauer this same questions years ago (do you have the adventure gene) and don’t remember his answer, ha. But he did acknowledge that he thought he was wired differently than “normal” folks. I feel like I’m somewhere in the middle. I get thrills and push myself on the slopes, etc. but really I’m a big chicken too. I don’t like to ski out of control, I get paralyzed by heights (so rock climbing never really cut it for me), I get scared in my kayak when I can’t master the strong currents or winds (no whitewater for me, sea kayaking, thanks you.). But I also get restless with being inactive and not being outdoors and moving. BUT I came from a fairly sedentary family and the skiing, camping, hiking, kayaking, bicycling, etc. I picked up on my own, not from my family. My dad was about watching sports.

    • Every athlete I’ve interviewed for my new book downplays their own risk. There seems to be a continuum and we always think we are somewhere at the bottom. But Jill, most people would consider you quite adventurous. Certainly that’s probably not why you love to ski and hike and kayak. You love it because its fun. Pure and simple.

  2. “I was raised in a skiing family”

    I discovered skiing when I was 35, and I felt like I’d been asleep all my life and had finally woken up. You’re lucky!

    I didn’t know my dad growing up, but it turns out that he and my brothers are really into dangerous sports and military pursuits.

  3. Pingback: Extreme Sports are Good for Your Health | Kim Kircher

  4. Pingback: » Adventure: It might be all in your genes…

  5. Always enjoy reading your blog, and “Do We Have An Adventure Gene” compelled me to chime in.

    My Dad lost his sight when I was very young, but in his younger days, he and my mom skied the Summit, where I learned, and then switched over when Crystal opened. They skied on St. Louis Hickory’s with square toed leather boots and beartraps, made by my dad’s West Seattle High School buddy. While he was unable to perform any sort of athletics with me after losing his sight, he alway’s made sure that I had the gear that I needed when I was young, and later matched funds from my summer lawn jobs, and delivering groceries from his store, when I was in my teens.

    When I was six he would help strap me into my cable bindings and send me up the hill. Though I never got to ski with him, I believe he skied vicariously through me, asking me every detail of my days on the mountain, and he continued that line of questioning as long as I knew him. (Nothing against bowlers) but I too am really glad my folks heard the calling. Anyway…sorry for the Gettysberg.

    About the gene: If I’m hearing the science correctly, it sounds like skiers/thrill seekers need to push the limits more and more in order to achieve that same dopamine rush they had the first time they skied serious steeps, or anything that tested their ability. If that’s true, then skiing falls under the guise of an addiction like alcoholism, whereas an alcoholic is in constant search of that first buzz achieved from drinking that first bottle of Rainier. In that sense, the alcoholic will never achieve that first warm and fuzzy again, but will continue to chase after it by consuming more and more. I know this is a bizarre correlation, but yeah…I’m pretty familiar with that aspect.

    2016-17 marked my 56th season, and looking back I have had some truly magnificent moments/thrills on the mountain. When I was young, more often than not, many of those moments came when skiing beyond my ability. And so the chase for those thrills began which brings me to my full circled thoughts on the subject.

    Due to several serious back, neck, and shoulder injuries, my extreme thrill seeking days are less and less, however, on Easter Sunday I was on the hill with my son, and some friends. Spring conditions, but there was a window of good snow midday, and we grabbed it. Granted we were skiing cruisers, Ferk, Green Valley, The Queen etc., but we cruised them at speed. At one point I was flat skiing, literally skiing as fast as I could, when my son blew by me like I was standing still. I’m happy to report, that each time we got to the bottom of a run, I had that same rush that I did the first time I skied chair 6. It’s true, I have slowed down, but I don’t enjoy it any less. Whatsmore…my wife, kids, and friends are all aware of my wishes for a flaming toboggan funeral on the hill, with of course a torchlight ski patrol escort. But until that day, I will continue my extreme thrill seeking vicariously by watching my son drop into powder bowl 🙂

    BTW I gave up one for the other. I am, and continue to be, a full blown “skiaholic”.
    Again, really enjoy your writing. Thanks

  6. I have recently become fascinated by the possibility that adventure attraction is, in part, genetically influenced. During my lifetime I have experienced tremendous satisfaction from wilderness experiences (hiking, exploring, floating, dog team travel and piloting light aircraft. These pursuits came at a price – including serious injuries and a few close calls, but that never extinguished the desire for more.

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