Thrill seeking: crazy, or a transcendental pursuit?

Have you ever wondered why some people are willing to take big risks for big thrills? Turns out there just might be an explanation.

My wife argues that going big and taking risks is a simple form of dementia. She reasons that animals instinctively understand the difference between jumping off a cliff and not jumping off a cliff.

Animals wouldn’t float a Class V river or scale a granite wall without ropes or paddle for a 30-foot wave.  Humans, the ultimate thinking creature, disregard this instinctual behavior in an effort to satisfy an urge or a goal.  And this is just plain stupid, she contends.

Psychologists seem to generally agree with my wife’s observations, applying the straightforward stance that extreme sport athletes and calculated risk takers are troubled in a sense.

Hailing from the sensation seeking theory school of thought, this body of science has found similarities between the brains of drug addicts and the brains of people who jump out of planes. Interesting stuff, really.

Several years ago, writer Brian Handwerk poised the all-important question in a National Geographic News article: “What is it that drives some to embrace extreme risks, while the rest of us scurry for the safety of the sidelines?”

The easy answer to a complicated question: your adrenaline pumping in overdrive. Facing your fear. Accomplishing a daring challenge. The moment when you “feel alive.”

In extreme sports, pushing your limits is the name of the game. It is a condition some experts might call the law of diminishing returns, where achieving the same goal time and time again will no longer induce the same rush.

It’s why anyone who snowboards, skis, skates, surfs, whitewater kayaks, or whatever can’t wait to get back out there.  Taking big risks may seem silly to the outsider, but the feeling is transcendental.

Psychologists have found similarities between the brains of drug addicts and the brains of people who jump out of planes.

In fact, psychologists who interviewed a group of whitewater kayakers found that their subjects experienced a heightened sense of awareness when under pressure, as if in a meditative state.

Thrill seekers walk a very fine line between finding zen and getting killed doing what they love. Every so often you’ll hear about the ride that went wrong, when even the pros die.

The extreme sports world is put in check, if only for a moment.  We lament the loss and contemplate the dicey situations we’ve faced, but the first word of clean surf or deep pow and it’s on.

Oftentimes what death represents for extreme sports is an athlete whose bar was raised too high.  Which is why it’s crucial, to me at least, to know your limits.

Perhaps you have your own explanation as to why people risk it all for a quick thrill.

Let’s hear it.



  1. I don’t think it has anything to do with madness. There is a simple explanation: you like to do this, you want to experience something different. We like to go to unknown places like Ukraine, which also involves certain risks. And certain people (like my parents) say that I am abnormal… But I need to do this, I want to see, I want to experience and so do you, but in your own way! Keep on doing the stuff that you do! I admire you for that!

    1. Couldn’t we argue that there is a difference between wanting to experience something different versus wanting to experience something different and risking your life to do so? Not all thrill seekers are risking their lives, necessarily. But those who regularly do are in a different league mentally.

      I hear what you’re saying, though. Wanting to experience something different is a constant urge for so many people. Denying it would be a crime.

  2. Phew! So the simple fact that I don’t see the joy of a personal Bridge Day experience doesn’t make me crazy after all! (But I do like white water rafting…so maybe I’m edging into madness after all……)

  3. Funny that you mentioned this, I was watching 60 minutes last night and there was a section on a guy who is into free climbing. The whole story was on him free climbing (no ropes or harness’) the north face of half dome in Yosemite. I was sitting there palms sweating just to think that one wrong move and he’s screwed! I think its just us being human. We need something to give us that rush, whether it be from a line of coke, or a tough line up a mountain as humans we need that and everyone has their ways of getting this experience.

    1. Alex Honnold is a beast! He would represent the extreme outlier of this conversation. One slip, and he’s done. Yet he’s constantly saying “this is what I live for.” You have to admire such conviction and determination.

      You’re absolutely correct: we need something to give us that rush. And people do discover it in its infinite forms. I find it fascinating, because biologically speaking, we are not exactly hardwired to pursue “that rush.” I doubt our ancestors found any joy in being hunted by big game. Or maybe a few thrill seekers in the bunch did!

      I’ll have to watch the 60 Minutes clip. Sounds pretty good.

      1. yea it was on last night, the first part was about guys who base jump with wing suits. so it would apply fully to this. I dont think i could do something that would kill me with one false move. While riding pro bmx when i was younger i would do some stuff on a bike that today makes me cringe just thinking about the possibilities of the unknown. But i think since i was so into the sport and into the moment that was doing those things, it made it seem alright to do it without thinking about those things. one bad side of a pedal one missed bar and it is all over, these days i wouldnt take those risks, i care far to much about the other aspects of life.

      2. I’m the same way. I pulled some pretty stupid stunts back in the day. It seems the older you get, the more you realize you aren’t invincible. I’m not saying I’m immune to stupid stunts these days, but they do seem to occur less frequently.

        BMX is such a gnarly sport. I don’t know how you guys get up sometimes.

  4. For myself, I wouldn’t try to separate the two. I don’t see a difference.
    And as long as I meet my “normal” world responsibilities, that doesn’t concern me at all.

    Though it’s cooler to say it’s transcendental, I think…

    1. Way cooler. I agree.

      What about you? You’re a certifiable thrill seeker. Would you say you know your limits? Do any of us truly know our limits?

      1. Part of the thrill is finding the limits. What I like most about climbing is that it is a perfect union of body and mind.
        It requires absolute focus of all facets of the person.
        That being said, I remember trying to learn to hang glide. All day, run down the hill with the glider, drag it back up the hill, repeat.
        Towards the end of the day, everything came together, and for 15 glorious seconds, I was Wile E Coyote, feet paddling in nothing.
        Landed with the biggest stupidest grin you’ve ever seen.
        Instructor asked me if I wanted to keep going. I answered no – I’d just caught flight, so I was elated and a little drunk form the high, plus I’d been running around all day long.
        Did I want to? Hell yes. Would it have been incredibly stupid to keep pushing myself at that point? More emphatic Hell yes.

        For me, the thing is to approach the thrill with
        -An honest appraisal of my ability
        -An honest appraisal of the risk
        -An honest appraisal of whoever I’m doing it with.
        I climbed once with a guy I shouldn’t have trusted. Never will again.

        Oh, and no way in hell I’m going ice climbing. I simply don’t have the ability to wrap my brain around it.

        I have no idea if that answered the question.

      2. I dig your approach. It’s entirely possible people get in trouble because they don’t have such a system in place. Or if they do, they overestimate one—if not all three—of the conditions.

        Interesting that you asses the person you’re going out with. It’s way too easy to have some idiot talk you into doing some stupid shit.

  5. Hi,
    I am definitely one that likes to stay on the ground, but I enjoy watching people that do extreme sports, and I admire them for being able to do it. From some friends that do extreme sports, the adrenaline rush seems to be a major factor.

      1. I love water skiing, hiking, if it is a long hike, I will only stay in a tent for no longer than 1 night. 😆
        Just your average type of stuff, no jumping out of plains, or white water rafting. 😀

  6. I was wondering if you might help me out…El Guapo and Edward Hotspur gave me quite a bad time the other day, and I thought it might be fun if some of us bloggers who frequently see their sites would mention “conspiracy” or some form of the word in any comment we make on their blog tomorrow. The idea is to get them thinking that it is weird that so many people are talking about conspiracies…but we should still be subtle enough that they won’t figure out there really is a conspiracy to quickly.

  7. I’m most aware of how precious life is when I’m in the brink of losing it. That I think explains why I see life at its most precious state. At the same time, makes me feel how alive I can be. I think I just rephrased my previous statement. Nonetheless, I loved it and I love it.

Say what?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s