Why Are We Addicted to Extreme Sports?

Extreme sports seem to be on the rise across the globe. Why do these individuals risk their lives for a thrill?

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Earlier this week, Dean Potter, a renowned climber and extreme sportsman, died after jumping off a 7,500 ft (2,285 m) cliff in Yosemite National Park. Potter, along with fellow climber Graham Hunt, were wearing wing suits and intended to fly through the rocky terrain before deploying their parachutes. During flight, both men crashed and were found dead many hours later.

So why do we do this? Why do so many thrill seekers take part in BASE jumping (Buildings, Antennas, Spans, and Earth) and other dangerous activities? There are two leading theories out there. Psychologists tend to think humans perform risky behaviors out of our hardwired fear response. Medical researchers, on the other hand, point to the brain's reward systems.

A small study from Queensland University of Technology in Australia looked at fear responses in people who participated in extreme adventure sports. The researchers found that for some people, overcoming fear was a meaningful, constructive experience. They still experience fear, but it's viewed much more as a positive experience, rather that negative.

Other researchers have pointed to the brain's amygdala, a region in our brain that releases hormones that quicken the heart in preparation for the "fight or flight" instinct. As part of this process, the brain releases large amounts of dopamine, a powerful chemical closely linked to feelings of pleasure and reward. Exercising, talking to loved ones, eating, and other certain activities trigger a release of dopamine to reinforce "good" and healthy behaviors. Extreme athletes experience the fear of death, releasing large amounts of dopamine, and they enjoy a natural high of sorts. The problem, though, is the human brain can get accustomed to operating at these high dopamine levels, pushing extreme athletes to constantly seek out more dangerous, adventurous activities.

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Extreme sports are more popular than ever, prompting questions about legal liability (ABA Journal)
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