Not the Discovery Channel

What we really know about the past

Evolutionary Fitness…to the Xtreme!!!!

This post is going up a day early, because I plan on being somewhere up a mountain on Sunday. I spend a great deal of my spare time attempting to go up and down mountains in a variety of means. Last Wednesday I was snowboarding with a friend and watching everyone come down the run under the chairlift and had a very common thought. Humans are weird.

“Hey you know what? I have some spare time, lets strap some wood to my feet and try to go down this snow-covered hill as fast as I can”.

And say dude a lot.

So, lets investigate why ‘extreme sports’ exist from a cultural context. Specifically from a cultural evolution context.  First off, let me start by saying that I have no idea why snowboarding down a ramp or climbing the side of a cliff is labelled ‘extreme’, while having a 340 lb linebacker crash into you repeatedly is ‘normal’, but this is the parlance of our times, so I’m going to go ahead and use it.

So why do some humans choose to spend a Wednesday afternoon with a large piece of lacquered wood strapped to their feet, placing themselves squarely in the middle the two warring forces of friction and gravity? Have we always done this? Is it a new thing? To be honest with you, I have no idea. But I’m busy reading all about it. And here’s what I’ve come up with: it’s a combination of self-inflicted chemical alterations in the brain, beneficial evolutionary behaviours, and a whole pile of personal motivations.

First I’m going to start with studies in brain chemistry, because everybody loves chemistry. Especially of the brain. Now, I am in no way an expert in any of this, but I’ll give you a brief overview and let you figure out how deep you want to delve. It’s probably also important to remember that although chemical reactions are an important motivation, personal motivation plays just as big a part. But back to the chemistry.

The culprit here is that lovably little catecholamine neurotransmitter called dopamine. Catecholamines are hormones released by our adrenal glands. These glands sit on top of our kidneys like little hats and respond to stress by releasing a crap-load of different chemicals into our bloodstream, but lets focus on dopamine.

Basically dopamine is the chemical your brain uses to reward itself for behaviours. Without going into to many details, dopamine is in part of a whole mess of stuff going on in your brain. It helps with voluntary movement, it can keep you up at night, helps you think and pay attention, and is responsible for sexual arousal. It’s also associated a types of behaviours called Novelty Seeking, which is sometimes used synonymously with the term Sensation Seeking. The terms aren’t really the same thing, but they’re close enough for this discussion.

Sensation Seeking describes a whole suite of behaviours ranging from the use of illicit drugs to travel. It doesn’t mean that those of us who spend their time either going up or down mountains as fast as possible are also going to get drunk and drive our car through a shopping mall. Sensation Seekers look for stimulation in a variety of means, gambling, drug use, sex, adventure, travel- and these behaviours are not always interconnected. In fact studies have born this out. Basically, there are four groups of sensation seekers: those who look  for thrills and adventure, those who look for new experiences (not necessarily dangerous ones), people with strong disinhibitions, and those who get bored easily. There is even a test you can take to determine which group(s) you’re in.

For those of you in the last group, here is a picture of a dog with a large gun

Now it is important to remember that these different groups comprise of a whole suite of behaviours, so that not everyone who rock-climbs also binge-drinks. Though (if I’m honest) a climbers camp-ground is not exactly a church picnic, because though these groups are not necessarily connected, they’re not exclusive either. But let’s move on and focus on the thrill seeking group, because this group contains those people more prone to strap themselves into a hang-glider.

The best description for this behaviour seems to be the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which basically describes the relationship between being aroused and increased performance. Essentially the higher your state of arousal, the better and more focused your performance is- up to a point. At a certain point your arousal gets to high and your performance ability begins to drop off. This forms a very nice bell curve.

Who doesn't like a nice bell curve?

Being at the top of that curve is awesome, and it’s often referred to in very cliche terms. You know the ones, they generally involve the word edge. I won’t repeat them here but go watch the X-games and you’ll hear them all. I prefer to call it “Gleaming the Cube“.

Because Christian Slater and Tony Hawk fighting crime with skateboards is as X-treme as it gets

So riding the peak of that curve (or Gleaming the Cube- I will make this term popular) enhances your body and your brain’s performance. This is a good thing, and you get rewarded with higher levels of dopamine. Sort of. Some researchers think is the anticipation of the impending cube gleaming that gives us the dopamine rush. It’s probably both, but its not my area of focus and I don’t feel comfortable going into details. Instead lets just say that we get a rush both from trying to get to that peak and when we’re there.

Now that was just the explanations of what’s going on in your brain while your playing games with friction and gravity. There are many other ideas on why we chase the rush. Some researchers think it’s the function of a specific gene. Others disagree. Some think it’s a gender thing, or an exercise in personal well being, or even the search for a transcendental experience. There are also numerous evolutionary explanations for these behaviours. These ideas are not exclusive. Instead they describe the variety of reasons (chemical, genetic, personal) why risk taking behaviours exists. Because this is an archaeology/anthropological blog, I’m going to focus on the evolutionary ideas. This isn’t to say the other reasons are not as important, just that I’m going to focus on the nature rather than the nurture this time.

There are some studies, done on identical twins that were adopted by different families at a young age. These studies show that risk-taking behaviours are roughly 60% inherited, suggesting a strong biological link for risk taking behaviours. Other studies suggest a difference between the inheritability of occasional risk takers and full time sensation seekers. Not being a biopsychologist, I don’t feel comfortable critiquing these studies but I thought I’d mention them, as the support at least some part of these behaviours being inherited.

The evolutionary explanation goes something like this: humans have always needed risk takers. Risk taking behaviours allowed us to spread out across the globe very quickly. It likely helped us acquire new foods, find new environments to live, cross oceans on small wooden canoes… basically spread out across the world. So, in a cultural evolution sense, risk taking behaviours were good for us. This is the meta-explanation for these behaviours- it explains why we may have evolved to do this. It doesn’t entirely explain why individuals choose to participate. Instead it explains why these behaviours exist on a species-wide scale.

Think of it like sex. Sure sex is 100% necessary for our continuation as a species, but propagating the human species is not why individuals do it. Just try and convince your date to come home with you because we have a duty to spread our genes. Let me know how it works.  Condom sales and the Pill would seem to back up the idea that the next generation is not really the driving force for sex. Instead we have sex for a variety of reasons; physiological, biological, emotional, financial. All of those reasons also have the benefit of continuing the species, but the individual is not necessarily thinking about genetic continuity when they’re making out in the back of a 1958 chevy.

So that works for sex, we have a variety of reasons why we do it, but the meta explanation is simple: If we didn’t there would be no new humans. On the other hand all most everyone has sex (or is trying to), but not everyone bungee-jumps. That is the interesting question about risk-taking behaviours. If it’s good for us as a species, why doesn’t everyone do it?

This is often a question asked by anti-evolution promoters. If behaviour A has such a good evolutionary reason for it, then why do we even have behaviours B through Z?

The answer is simple. Behaviours B through Z also have an evolutionary advantage. Lets look at extreme sports to visualize this. Remember when we were talking about the Yerkes-Dodson Law? Well it turns out that different people have different peaks in their arousal levels. For example, a study of  NFL players showed they have a much higher peak arousal level than the general public, which may explain some of the desire to crash headlong into a wall of giant men. In a population of humans there exists a continuum of optimal stimulation levels, from those who are optimally stimulated at very low levels (i.e. watching the snuggie commercial at three in the morning) to the man who needs to jump out of helicopter onto a marlin. (Seriously, click that link, that guy is crazy.)

Michael, over at the Pysch Files, does a very good job of explaining this continuum, as well as how dopamine receptors work. Turns out that if you graph a population’s optimum arousal peaks you get another bell curve. This curve has very small number of people satisfied by blankets with sleeves at one end and very few people willing to wrestle giant fish in the open ocean on the other. The reason that it is evolutionarily fit for human cultures to have both types of people has to do with variety. Just like it’s good to have a varied gene pool, its also good to have a varied behaviour pool. We need risk takers. We also need people who avoid risks. If we were all risk takers, who would be around to make babies after all our faces were eaten by tigers? If we were all extremely cautious, who would be able to collect food from underneath sea ice?

Another aside- there is a good amount of data suggesting that optimal arousal lowers with age, but watch the video on that link above and then ask yourself one question- If that woman has lowered risk-taking, what the hell was she like when she was young?

In the end, it benefits us all to have some very low arousal people- think of them like safety-lines in the genetic pool- and it helps to have people exploring the very edges of our comfort zones. It also pays to have the majority of people filling up the gaps between the two extremes. Let Jimmy dive off the rock, if it’s safe enough, we’ll go next.

"Let us know if you see any Killer Wales"

The first one in may get more fish, but also may get eaten. Same goes for the next one. The ones in the middle may get less fish, but more than the guys behind them, while also reducing the chance of getting eaten. The guy at the end may not get much fish, but she’s got a pretty good chance of not being someone else lunch. And the colony benefits from all of them. It’s why there are more people who snowboard than there are BASE jumpers. Even within a single sport this is true. There are more top-rope (safest) climbers than lead (less safe) climbers and even fewer willing to free-solo (not very safe at all). But the sport benefits from all of them participating. So, in the end, we ride down hills on pieces of wood because it makes evolutionary sense that some of us just want to.

I should mention that there is the matter of mate selection, with predictions from the handicap principle. Basically, this principle suggests that by partaking in behaviours that have no real benefit but very real consequences, we are showing off our vitality and demonstrating our good choice as a mate. Actual studies don’t seem to agree with these though-at least for risk taking. In these studies both men and women said they would be more likely to find someone who participates in thrill-seeking behaviour attractive, but only if they themselves would also participate in the same behaviour. So I’m going to forget about the whole ‘chicks dig it’ idea for a while, and stick to the idea that both risk takers and non-risk takers are good for us as a whole.

On a personal note, I snowboard and rock-climb because I like the whole package. I like the dopamine effect and the optimal stimulation, but I also like being out in nature, the social aspects, and the transformational experiences I get by doing them. I am a product of both the meta explanations and the personal ones. Because human beings rarely do something for a single reason.

I also try to not spent to much time thinking about why I like doing them.

I also promise my next post won’t be so heavy.

I will try to have more pictures of cute things.

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