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What Daredevils Can Teach Us About Fear

That we need it, for one thing.

by Michael Byrne
Oct 30 2015, 11:00am

Preparing to BASE jump. Image: Håkon Thingstad/Flickr

People who do extreme sports aren't fearless. Jumping from a cliff in a wingsuit isn't a fearless act, nor is dropping into the turbulent maelstrom of a steep whitewater creek. The people that do these things experience fear in many ways like you or I. If they didn't, we might as well just be watching really drunk people jump cliffs and waterfalls—and that's not very interesting, is it? It might also be quite grim.

Instead, we watch people that have fear, but also have talent. Talent and familiarity—doing a dangerous thing again and again—metabolize fear, but, from a psychological perspective, there is something else: reward. Fear may be hard-wired into our brains, but so is reward. The bare chemical rush of it is incredible: dopamine floods in.

This may seem like old hat, but science continues to refine the risk-neurotransmitter relationship. For example, a 2014 study by researchers in British Columbia observed rats again and again hitting the lever for the larger but unassured reward over an alternative lever offering a smaller but guaranteed reward. They found that by regulating dopamine levels in the rats' brains, they could cause the rodents to make more cautious decisions, backing off of the high-risk lever in favor of the better all-around deal.

The risk-reward relationship has been demonstrated similarly in compulsive gamblers and drug addicts, but that's not quite it. Extreme sports athletes are surely motivated in some large part by the brain's all-powerful chemistry, and this is often where the discussion ends. There's more to it, however, than a simple trade-off between reward and fear, and it's here that things become much more interesting. Fear is more than a simple warning flare.

High-risk sports are often likened to gambling, albeit with some very dire stakes. What if the 'chute doesn't open? What if the kayaker launching over that waterfall lands on a rock? What if the free soloing rock climber loses her grip, even for just a millisecond?

The problem here is that the questions are wrong. These activities aren't gambling.

Image: Xof711

Historically, I've had a big problem with fear. I was never able hang in extreme skiing competitions because I could never get over that last little voice deep in my gut insisting that no, really, this is fucked up. The voice, however, was never my own, it was instead the voice of the person on the ground watching me skitter along the edge of some house-sized, iced-over berm or just clear the punishing flat tabletop of a jump.

The voice hadn't been around on the other 120 or so days that year I'd been on the mountain doing this exact thing and far more sketchy-seeming variations—again and again and again. Like the tightrope walker or, sure, the airline pilot, it's all obsessively practiced.

Fear in extreme sports athletes results in the precise opposite of carelessness or recklessness. The pilot, the skier, and even the BASE jumper are all characterized by their ability to deftly micromanage risk. A jet is a lumbering expanse of mechanical variables built around chaotic-appearing nests of wires and hydraulic tubing that are in reality not just engineered to astounding degrees of precision, but are then inspected again and again by mechanics and crews. Should those engineers fail, and then those inspections fail, then the aircraft still doesn't crash because those systems are redundant several times over.

That is risk management, and so it goes in extreme sports as well, albeit not to quite the same degree (the systems are simpler). The packing of a BASE jumping parachute is an exacting science, while the equipment is specific to the short time spans involved in a very low elevation jump. The thing you don't see in the video of the kayaker launching a waterfall are the dudes standing around ready to throw ropes in the event of a rescue, or the "safety" kayaker waiting in the river at the bottom of the rapid. The backcountry skier has dug a pit to analyze snow layering for avalanche danger and carries an emergency locator beacon along with a shovel and an expandable probe should they need to search through avalanche debris for a fallen comrade.

Extreme sports athletes experience fear, as they should, and cultivate it into meticulousness.

A 2013 study by Queensland University of Technology researchers Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer offers a more scientific look. "Theoretical perspectives have sought to explain participants' motivations through a range of risk focused analytical frameworks that emphasize the abnormality of such behaviours," they write. "Typically participation has been judged as negative and deviant. Participants are typically portrayed as selfish, teenage boys 'fascinated with the individuality, risk and danger of the sports.'"

"The assumption is that risk acts as a motivator for participants with little skill and a pathological desire to bond with images associated with extreme sports," they add.

Except, as Schweitzer and Brymer note, psychological research conducted in recent years doesn't support the negative stereotypes much at all.

For example, they cite a a 2008 study by City University psychologist Carla Willig, who found a wide range of positive psychological effects in extreme sports participation—involving, yes, an adrenaline buzz, but also more abstract themes like "skill and mastery" (being really good at stuff), "contrast" (the peacefulness of a mountainside vs. screaming down it on a bicycle), and "being in the present" (focusing on just this one thing.)

There is also "suffering," Willig explains. Through the course of many interviews with athletes, she found that, "while participants tended to talk about pain and injury as undesirable dimensions of the experience, there was also a sense in which some degree of physical suffering was a necessary part of pushing oneself to one's limits, and beyond."

Willig's conclusions:

It seems that taking part in extreme sports activities means more to participants than searching for thrills and excitement, and their deliberate and self-conscious approach to the activities suggests that they are making informed choices rather than simply acting out unresolved conflicts or implementing distorted cognitions.Participants' accounts suggest that the experience of extreme sport permits them to experience their own existence in novel ways (e.g. the experience of 'flow'). Thus, rather than (merely) being a vehicle of (potential) self-destruction or a symptom of unresolved psychic conflicts, taking part in extreme sport seems to offer participants a way of extending their range of experience in order to make available new and potentially enriching ways of being. In the case of extreme sport, these ways of being carry certain risks to one's personal health and safety, and it seems that participants are very much aware of these risks and of the fact that the possibility of suffering is a necessary dimension of the experience.

She goes on to suggest that extreme sports may even carry certain therapeutic effects. Athletes reported higher levels of self-esteem and confidence, to start, but also found the sports as ways to "ground" themselves, to "get rid of negative energy," or to "lift" themselves to another level.

"If the purpose of psychotherapeutic work is to explore, challenge and possibly reconfigure the self-structure in the service of personal growth," she notes, "it could be argued that participants' desire to push themselves up to and beyond their physical and psychological limits may be therapeutic in that it provides opportunities to test, play with and possibly transcend the confines of the 'self.'"

Image: Rob Shenk

Schweitzer and Brymer point out something pretty important about humans and our relationship to fear, or, rather, their dwindling relationship to fear. What is it to be animals in a world where we have nothing to fear but fear itself? Is it a victory?

"I think fear is probably the most important single facet in survival," one participant reported in Schweitzer and Brymer's study. "Yeah I think it's a good healthy emotion, fear. People are afraid of fear [but] fear is what keeps you alive, it's your fear that stops you from standing right on the very edge; fear is the most important thing in survival; the most important thing."

Another participant spoke of using fear to slow time, in a sense. "In those moments when things do suddenly switch into a life or death situation I'm able to almost slow everything down," the participant said. Another way of looking at it is in terms of sudden clarity and all-encompassing focus and, thus, control. Fear is then "an experience to be savoured, confronted or broken through rather than as stimulus for retreat," the authors add.

I stopped skiing in my early-20s, a failure in competitive terms, but I've never been able to shake "extreme" sports. Next was train hopping, which is its own peculiar sport with its own risk management skill-set (believe it or not). Nowadays, it's climbing and mountaineering.

Climbing is the perfect example of the relationship between fear and safety. Properly done, it's as safe as getting out of bed in the morning—climbing gear is exhaustively tested and certified, the knots are bomb-proof, the anchors are secure and redundant, and the climber knows how to put it all together safely and correctly. All of these things are assured by fear. Falling may likely result in death, which is to be feared.

Fear ensures the system is verified and complete. Panic, however, does the opposite. Panic is its own distraction and it's how things are overlooked or worse.

I can remember being at the top of a certain climb not all that long ago. Like many pitches, the top of this one isn't really the "top," which means that the climb's permanent anchors (chains bolted into the rock with a couple of steel eyelets) were below the top of the cliff. So, when the climber finishes, they have to switch around some gear so they can rappel back down. It involves attaching oneself to the anchor with a short piece of webbing for protection, detaching from the rope, rethreading it through different hardware, and then reattaching to the rope. Finally, once back on the main rope, the webbing is disconnected.

On this climb, the switch between up and down modes is done while clinging to a pretty narrow ledge, maybe about a third of the length of a climbing shoe. Your hands are mostly occupied with the rope, so staying put means some amount of balance is required. No big deal. But I got spooked in the process of attaching and reattaching and panicked. I couldn't convince myself that I was secure—though I was—and so I froze. As I froze, I could feel my legs begin to shake in growing tremors. It occurred to me that if I could not complete the ropework in front of me I would wind up stuck. There was no other way down.

I pulled it off. I pulled my brain through from the towering, crashing waves of panic to the smooth cool harbor refuge of fear. My legs stopped vibrating, my palms stopped sweating, and my breath settled. It was like coming up for air after almost drowning.

Finished, I dropped backward from the ledge and felt my rappel device catch, as I knew it would because I was the one that had attached it to my harness and I was the one that had threaded the rope through it and the anchor above. I'd done this with a cool, clear brain. It felt good. Then I let myself plummet, releasing the device's autolocking rope-brake and just falling, only to zip to a comfortable stop a safe distance above the ground.

Then I did it again.