Search
Close this search box.

There’s no limit

Skydiver diving alone in blue sky at sunny day, adventure concept.

This feature was first published in October 2023 in My Mensa Weekly, our exclusive newsletter for Mensa members. Find out more about becoming a Mensa member here.

Why do we push ourselves to extremes? We take a dive into the history and psychology of endurance activities to find out what drives some people to risk everything.

Have you ever fancied bungee jumping? Volcano boarding? How about diving under layers of ice? For most of us, the thought of these activities fills us with dread and horror – but for extreme sports enthusiasts, they are part of life’s thrills. Why do some people seek them out?

Although there is no one definition for what constitutes ‘extreme sports’, they tend to be ones that involve significant personal risk and usually involve high speeds, great heights and high levels of physical exertion – or all of the above. They often also take place outdoors, where weather conditions add the extra element of unpredictability; for example, a big wave surfer paddling into 20-feet high waves or a free ice climber scaling ice slopes without a rope.

It is thought that the term ‘extreme sport’ was coined by the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) back in the mid-1990s, but the concept is far from a recent phenomenon. From Ancient Greeks wrestling with spiked gloves to medieval jousting, people have loved the thrill of danger for centuries – though it is worth noting that both of these sports were for others’ viewing pleasure rather than personal thrill seeking. And, of course, without the rules and health and safety regulations of recent times, things could get brutal.

Unsurprisingly (especially for anyone who has watched the film Gladiator), the Romans were huge fans of dangerous, crowd-pleasing sports, with chariot racing the most popular. Competitors would ride chariots round a curved arena, and playing dirty was part of the game – crashes were frequent and rival-trampling was encouraged. And you thought Formula One was tense.

Why do people pursue such hair-raising activities? It was long thought to be the reserve of ‘adrenaline junkies’, or more prosaically, those who had a ‘death wish’ – but more recent research suggests that extreme sports fans are seeking a more transcendental experience. It may be true that athletes score more highly than the rest of us in sensation seeking, but an in-depth study at Queensland University of Technology found that these sports can facilitate “more positive psychological experiences…and a vital sense of self that enriches everyday life”. Specifically, the study discovered that these activities can help develop resilience, lead to the forging of positive relationships with the natural world, and can even be used therapeutically to help with the treatment of psychological issues.

Research has also found that risk takers have naturally lower levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood, and dopamine, which manages the brain’s reward centres. So the element of danger is more likely to give them the mood boost they need.

Perhaps one of the biggest myths around extreme sports is that participants are without fear. As award-winning freeskier Cody Townsend puts it: “Fear is what keeps us safe and helps us make the correct decisions… I just think we play on a different scale.”

Words of encouragement 

Whether the mountain you are climbing is physical or mental…here are 140 quotes to inspire you. Follow this link. 

‘The most insane ski run ever imagined’ 

Fancy freeskiing? Check out Markus Eder’s medley of tricks and drops documented over a two-year period.  

Credits: Shutterstock

Latest news from Mensa

More from Mensa

There’s no limit

This feature was first published in October 2023 in My Mensa Weekly, our exclusive newsletter for Mensa members. Find out more about becoming a Mensa member here.

Why do we push ourselves to extremes? We take a dive into the history and psychology of endurance activities to find out what drives some people to risk everything.

Have you ever fancied bungee jumping? Volcano boarding? How about diving under layers of ice? For most of us, the thought of these activities fills us with dread and horror – but for extreme sports enthusiasts, they are part of life’s thrills. Why do some people seek them out?

Although there is no one definition for what constitutes ‘extreme sports’, they tend to be ones that involve significant personal risk and usually involve high speeds, great heights and high levels of physical exertion – or all of the above. They often also take place outdoors, where weather conditions add the extra element of unpredictability; for example, a big wave surfer paddling into 20-feet high waves or a free ice climber scaling ice slopes without a rope.

It is thought that the term ‘extreme sport’ was coined by the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) back in the mid-1990s, but the concept is far from a recent phenomenon. From Ancient Greeks wrestling with spiked gloves to medieval jousting, people have loved the thrill of danger for centuries – though it is worth noting that both of these sports were for others’ viewing pleasure rather than personal thrill seeking. And, of course, without the rules and health and safety regulations of recent times, things could get brutal.

Unsurprisingly (especially for anyone who has watched the film Gladiator), the Romans were huge fans of dangerous, crowd-pleasing sports, with chariot racing the most popular. Competitors would ride chariots round a curved arena, and playing dirty was part of the game – crashes were frequent and rival-trampling was encouraged. And you thought Formula One was tense.

Why do people pursue such hair-raising activities? It was long thought to be the reserve of ‘adrenaline junkies’, or more prosaically, those who had a ‘death wish’ – but more recent research suggests that extreme sports fans are seeking a more transcendental experience. It may be true that athletes score more highly than the rest of us in sensation seeking, but an in-depth study at Queensland University of Technology found that these sports can facilitate “more positive psychological experiences…and a vital sense of self that enriches everyday life”. Specifically, the study discovered that these activities can help develop resilience, lead to the forging of positive relationships with the natural world, and can even be used therapeutically to help with the treatment of psychological issues.

Research has also found that risk takers have naturally lower levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood, and dopamine, which manages the brain’s reward centres. So the element of danger is more likely to give them the mood boost they need.

Perhaps one of the biggest myths around extreme sports is that participants are without fear. As award-winning freeskier Cody Townsend puts it: “Fear is what keeps us safe and helps us make the correct decisions… I just think we play on a different scale.”

Words of encouragement 

Whether the mountain you are climbing is physical or mental…here are 140 quotes to inspire you. Follow this link. 

‘The most insane ski run ever imagined’ 

Fancy freeskiing? Check out Markus Eder’s medley of tricks and drops documented over a two-year period.  

Credits: Shutterstock

Related Resources

Got What it Takes

Take the Mensa IQ Test to see if you have what it takes to join the world’s highest IQ society.

Share this online