To most of us, the idea of anyone willingly jumping off a cliff with a 70 metre drop seems completely insane. So why do extreme sports action seekers do it? Are they special, different, or just plain nuts?
To find out, Dr. Jonica Newby travels to Queenstown, New Zealand – a stronghold of extreme sports – and meets one of their kings – a former aeronautical engineer with a famous namesake, Chuck Berry. Chuck shrugs off the risks of his adrenaline packed behaviour with a grin, “There’s a voice on one shoulder going why are you doing this? You’re scared….And the other voice is going, yeah but I like being scared…”
But the extreme sportsman’s physiological resistance to anxiety comes at an insanely high price, according to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Erik Monasterio. For twenty years Erik has been driven to find out what makes some people perform hyper-optimally under stress whereas others tend to collapse under pressure? That question has led him to search out and study the most death defying people he could lay his hands on.
Narration: What makes someone invite death – for fun?
Chuck Berry: There’s a voice on one shoulder going why are you doing this? You’re scared and the other voice is going yeah but I like being scared. And the other voice goes what if your parachute doesn’t open? And this one goes it always does.
Dr Jonica Newby: Oh my God. Frankly, the idea of anyone willingly jumping off this 70 metre drop seems to me completely insane. So why do they do it? Are they special – different – or just plain nuts? What’s really going on inside those extreme brains?
Right – how do I get out of here now?
Narration: Erik Monasterio is a mountaineer … and a prison psychiatrist … but his interest in how people react to the extreme imminence of death began before he was either – when he was kidnapped in Peru.
Dr Erik Monasterio: Despite them putting me under extraordinary pressure and even putting a gun to my head and pulling the trigger back I was able to talk my way around it. And I thought, well why is it that some people can perform optimally or hyper-optimally under stress whereas others tend to collapse under pressure.
Narration: 20 years on, that question has led him to study the most death defying people he could find.
And here in Queenstown – stronghold of extreme sports – lives one of their kings –former aeronautical engineer Chuck Berry.
Chuck Berry: Oh yeah, it’s a rush. It’s one of those moments in life where whether you live or die is in your hands and when that is at stake there’s nothing else that’s anything like it.
Narration: Some of Chuck’s near death escapades sound too James Bondian to be true.
Chuck Berry: I was flying a glider called a Swift … and bang both my wings fell off.
Its like – oh my goodness my wings have fallen off, oh I’m outside the cockpit, oh my parachute’s up there.
And the wee voice on the shoulder is going dude, do something, you’ve only got that much height … climbed up the bridle, got hold of the cockpit cage and deployed my parachute in the proverbial nick of time.
I can honestly say I really did enjoy the experience.
Narration: So does that sound crazy to you? That’s where Erik comes in.
Dr Monasterio: Here we are guys I’ve got a couple of questionnaires here I’d like you to answer and this will help me to determine your personality make up.
Chuck Berry: And Jonica thinks she’s normal.
Narration: Erik managed to pin down 50 fellow mountain climbers and 35 BASE jumpers long enough to complete the same lengthy profiles we’re filling out now.
Sure enough, the extreme sportsmen stood out on two hardwired traits.
Dr Monasterio: We’ll start off by looking at novelty seeking. Compared to normal Jonica you scored a little bit above but nothing to get too excited about.
Jonica: Pretty normal, hm?
Dr Monasterio: Yeah whereas Chuck, Chuck scored significantly above normal.
Narration: On novelty seeking, this group scored well above my fellow normals. Novelty seekers are easily bored, and often look for a change in their activities.
Dr Monasterio: Okay guys the second measure we looked at and the findings on these ones are really fascinating. I looked at harm avoidance. Now just to bear in mind the average harm avoidance is about twelve and a half. Jonica you sit on fifteen so you’re slightly more anxious or what we call harm avoidant.
Chuck, mate, you score a startling zero. That is way out there.
Chuck Berry: Really? I’m so proud.
Narration: On Harm Avoidance, BASE jumpers stood out even from the climbers - with the lowest scores Erik had ever heard of.
So extreme sports people turn out to be high on novelty seeking and low on harm avoidance … but what’s behind it biologically?
Jonica: I once swore an oath to myself that the one thing I would never ever try was a bungy jump. But unfortunately it seems like the perfect way compare how my body reacts with BASE jumper Chuck.
Chuck: This is going to be fun
Jonica: That’s what I was afraid of.
Narration: We’re going to be wearing heart rate monitors as an indirect measure of Adrenaline.
Jonica: OK, heart rates just went up to 100.
AJ Hackett Bungy: 5 4 3 2 1 jump, scream, scream.
Jonica: Heart rate 124., Chuck laughing:
Narration: Adrenaline is closely linked with Dopamine – the neurochemical that makes you feel euphoric - so what we think of as an adrenaline rush is also a dopamine rush.
Dr Monasterio: High novelty seekers tend to have low levels of dopamine and potentially what it implies is that people undertake risky or novel type experiences in order to bring up their levels of dopamine.
Narration: Not that I’ve got that problem.
Jonica: Ugh – did I scream?
Narration: When it comes to low harm avoidance, the neurochemistry is less clear, though there’s some suggestion it’s linked to low levels of the calming chemical, serotonin.
But what we do know is that people with low harm avoidance are far less prone to the physiological state known as anxiety.
Dr Monasterio: What I suspect is that the low level of these brain chemicals means you can deal with a lot of stress without being overwhelmed.
Jonica: His went up to 88 – mine was 120. I think that says it all, really.
Narration: But the extreme sportsman’s physiological resistance to anxiety comes at an insanely high price.
Chuck Berry: On Christmas Day 1996 myself and a good friend Gary Dawson went to the west coast of New Zealand to do some base jumping.
And I jumped off before Gary and had a bad parachute opening and I ended up hitting the cliff … stuck on a little rock … about three hundred and fifty feet above a river bed below.
So Gary jumped off to go and sort out a rescue for me and he had an opening that was worse than mine. And he spun out of sight.
And the only thing I could see was my mate at the bottom of the hill and Gary’s fiancé running towards each other and hugging each other which looked to me like a bad sign.
Narration: Back in 1998, Erik began a long term study of mountain climbers.
When he checked on them four years later, to his shock, 8% were dead from climbing accidents.
Dr Monasterio: I think it’s a little bit unfair to compare mountaineers or extreme sports people with psychiatric patients but purely for comparison sake the death rate as found in my study would be comparable to the most serious psychiatric disorders.
Narration: While Erik’s BASE jumper study hasn’t been going long enough for equivalent figures, a rough database maintained by a BASE insider suggests they too are dying young – many from suicide.
Dr Monasterio: When you look at the data within the population of extreme sports people there’s a small sub-population who are very, very extreme and I think they’re more likely to have all sorts of psychiatric complications.
Narration: Yet what really astonished Erik was not that a few had signs of madness - but that the rest had signs of surprisingly robust mental health.
Dr Monasterio: Almost all of them know at least one person who has died from their involvement in that activity. Despite all this adversity, they persist in their sport and that’s unusual. What that suggests is that extreme sports people are relatively immune to post traumatic stress disorder.
Narration: That innate resistance to anxiety has its benefits.
Chuck Berry: I’ve seen five people die indulging in these sports. And it’s always a sobering thing to see. But I just do my level best not to make those same kinds of mistakes.
Dr Monasterio: Some of these traits I think are extremely advantageous. Your ability to tolerate risk is often very helpful in determining how successful you’re going to be. And if you have a low liability to be put off by uncertainty you’re going to be far more competitive in an already competitive society.
Jonica Newby: So – are they madmen, or the sanest most positive people you’ll ever meet? It seems the extreme brain has a bit of each. But whatever else you might think of them, you have to admit: for a bunch of people who live so close to death, they are absolutely full of life.
Doctor Erik Monasterio
Source: Story Archive: ABC Catalyst Program