April 19, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Why are people drawn to extreme sports?

28 min read

Kim Mills: For most of us, the idea of jumping off a bridge with a parachute, or surfing a wave 70 feet high, seems to defy comprehension. We might regard base jumpers, big wave surfers, free solo rock climbers and other extreme adventurers with a mixture of confusion, awe, and skepticism, thinking, “There’s no way I could risk my life like that.”

Psychologists, too, have wondered what drives people to participate in extreme sports, and they’re finding that many of our preconceived notions about adventurers are wrong. Many extreme adventurers, they argue, are not daredevil risk-takers, but instead, careful planners who prepare methodically for the adventures they undertake.

So what does draw people to extreme adventure? Do adventurers share any common personality traits? Do they just have less fear than the rest of us, or do they channel their fear differently? What role does fear play in how adventurers approach what they do? What lessons can less adventurous people learn from research into extreme adventure?

Welcome to Speaking of Psychology, the flagship podcast of the American Psychological Association that examines the links between psychological science and everyday life. I’m Kim Mills. My guest today is Dr. Eric Brymer, a psychologist and senior lecturer at Southern Cross University in Australia, where he studies the human/nature relationship and performance in extreme environments. He has interviewed dozens of adventurers for his research studies, and is the editor of a recent book, Adventure Psychology: Going Knowingly into the Unknown

Dr. Brymer, thank you for joining me today.

Eric Brymer, PhD: Thank you very much for inviting me, Kim. It’s very wonderful to be with you, across the pond.

Mills: The big pond.

Brymer: The very big pond.

Mills: Well, let’s start with a question that I posed in the introduction. What draws people to participate in activities like base jumping or free solo climbing? You’ve interviewed a lot of adventurers over the years. What have they told you about why they do what they do?

Brymer: Yeah, that’s a fascinating question, because actually, there’s two parts to that question. One is, why do people start? The other one is, why do people continue? They’re often very different. The traditional notion is the no fear, risk taking, death wish notion, where people get into these things because they just love to take risks. They’ve got a personality that drives them to look at these activities. Actually, we find it’s very different than that. The reason people start is as varied as there are people. I’ve spoken to some people who have said, “My family are surfers, so I got into surfing,” but they were the only one that went into big wave surfing. I’ve spoken to people who said, “I didn’t think I was interested in any of this.”

I can remember talking to one lady, for the sake of example, who called herself a corporate chick, and she said, “Only when I went to a corporate motivational talk, and I saw this person was describing their life,” and they had images of base jumping, because they were a base jumper. They were also a medical doctor as well, but they were a base jumper. She said, “Something just clicked inside of me, and I thought, that looks fascinating,” and then she spent six, seven years learning everything she needed to learn in order to start to base jump.

There are all varieties of reasons why people get into it, and believe it or not, some people get into it because they love the idea of safety. The Base Jumping Association of Australia, for sake of example, has a safety officer. There are all sorts of reasons, and most of those reasons are individual. They’re based on people’s particular life at the time, what comes their way.

There is a framework out there that suggests that their opportunities in their particular environment, because they have a personality, they just go and do it. We also find that’s not quite true, either. I’ve spoken to people who were born and bred and bought up in a city, but one particular person said, ever since he can remember, he was just really fascinated by stories of the mountains, he used to read mountain stories, mountaineering stories, all things. As soon as he was old enough, he moved to the mountain areas, and started to learn how to climb and mountaineer, when he could do that on his own.

I’ve spoken to people who lived in the middle of Australia that just had this connection or fascination with the surf. As soon as they were old enough, as soon as they could, they moved to the coast, to start developing skills and activities within surfing. Why people get into it, it’s a personal thing, and I’ll be honest, there are actually some people get into it because they see these videos on YouTube, they hear this heavy rock music, and they think, “This is exciting, and thrilling. I’ll get into that, and I’ll give that a go.”

Often, what happens with those people is either they very quickly realize it’s not quite as simple as they thought originally, it actually takes a lot of commitment and hard work, and training, et cetera, to do this well; or, if they’re lucky, they have an accident which means they can’t do it anymore—but often they die—and then they just can’t continue, so they drop out pretty quickly.

That brings us onto the next element, why people continue, and that’s the really fascinating question. What we’re definitely finding is the traditional idea of no fear, having a death wish, having a risk-taking type of personality doesn’t fit the extreme sports athlete. In fact, we find they’re very careful. We find that, in fact, they have an in-depth knowledge of the environment that they are participating in. We find that, actually, it takes years, and they do some really intense training to get to the skills.

One base jumper, for sake of example, before they started proximity flying—and for those who don’t know, proximity flying is when you jump off a cliff but you have a wing suit, and then you fly along the cliff as far as you can, and travel for a distance before you pull your parachute. Before he transitioned from base jumping to wing suit, he spent years researching across the world every single potential accident, in order to figure out whether there were patterns. He did find patterns, and he decided, “Okay, these are the patterns where things go wrong. I’m going to avoid those.” This is not an unusual activity at all. People really get a profound—not only the environment, but profound knowledge of the activity they’re doing.

The other thing that happens as well, and people start at different levels here, is that because extreme sports athletes are basically on their own, if something goes wrong in the middle of an extreme sport activity, nobody can help you out. The only person that’s there for you is yourself. You have to have a really profound, deep knowledge of your capacities, of what you’re capable of, and how you’re feeling, because if you’re not feeling right, if things aren’t quite right or you have this sense that something is not right, it might just be the wind is in the wrong direction, or something isn’t feeling well. You have to have the capacity to say, “Actually, I’m going to walk away. I’ll come back again another day, because today doesn’t feel good.” That happens more than you realize within an extreme sport context as well.

The people that I interviewed weren’t in the typical age that we think about extreme athletes as well. They weren’t the older teenagers, younger twenties. The youngest person was just over 30, and the oldest person was in their seventies, and they were still participating in their particular chosen extreme sport, the ones that they had chosen.

The last element of this is, because of that requirement of the in-depth knowledge of the environment, we often find that extreme athletes, they’re not people that go out, “How can I demonstrate my risk-taking activity here today? Oh, look, I’ll just grab a mountain bike and try and do this, or I’ll grab this.” They’re very focused on the activity because they learned so much about it. It’s very rare to find that people do more than one activity, or if they do, it’s because they need the skills to climb a mountain in order to jump off it, if they’re a base jumper. They need a certain element of skills to get to the particular place, but really, their main activity is base jumping. In summary, basically, there’s this two elements of motivations, why people get into it and why people continue, and they’re very different.

Mills: What you’re describing is a really interesting level of meticulousness. I’m wondering whether these people are as meticulous about everything else in their lives?

Brymer: That’s a very good question. Well, there’s two elements to that one as well, unfortunately. One is that doing the adventure, and the extreme sport, does change your attitude in everyday life as well. It changes the way you interact with others, the way you experience your relationship with the natural world, it changes the way you experience everyday activities. For an example, you may still feel a little bit nervous public speaking if you’re not used to it, but people often report utilizing their extreme sports skills to work with that, and say, “In the end, I have these feelings in other places, so I should be able to do this as well.”

If meticulousness means overcautious, over specific, over perfectionist if you like, then I would say no, because actually, life becomes a lot more enjoyable, a lot more fun. You are less concerned about some of the minor things that we may, who are not extreme athletes, consider to be very important. I remember extreme athletes talking about how they interact with others. “Before I was an adventurer, I used to get really concerned when people were really cross with me, or really disappointed where I used to work. Now, it doesn’t bother me. I just think, “Well, they’re having a bad day. That’s their problem, not mine.”

I remember speaking to a doctor who used to say, “I was so concerned, the medical element of what I do, and what I was taught. In the end”—they’re an emergency doctor—“People were just numbers, and beds.” He’s had a very interesting story in how he got into it, but that’s for later on, I think. He said, as a result of getting into adventure, and becoming an extreme athlete, he now realizes that actually, there’s Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so in the bed, and not only that, but they have all these other things going on in their life, and they have a family, and they have a place that they live, and maybe they have pets. The perspective changes. Life becomes much more enjoyable, much more fulfilling as a result of participating in extreme sports, because it’s that existential notion. You realize how close you are to death, and then everything else doesn’t matter as much as you thought it did.

Mills: Yeah, it sounds almost mystical in that sense.

Brymer: It very much is, and people often report things—there have been some extreme sport athletes who’ve been trying for years and years through mindfulness meditation to get to a point of freedom, and they’ve got it pretty instantly through extreme sports, but not through mindfulness meditation. There are parts of the experience that I could only describe as ineffable. There are senses of freedom, there are senses of floating, flying, time standing still, sensory capacities expanding. You can see things and hear things much clearer whilst you’re involved in those sports than you can in everyday life.

Mills: I mentioned in the intro some of the different extreme sports that you study. I’m wondering, what counts as an extreme sport? Why is base jumping is an extreme sport, but something like basketball is not?

Brymer: That was probably the major challenge when I first got involved in looking at extreme sports athletes, and that was because research up to the time I started had not made that clear. They would use the notion of kayaking, or they would use the notion of mountaineering, but actually, when you dig very closely into it, there’s a big difference between kayaking on flat water and kayaking in Grade VI. Flat water, you get a bit wet, and maybe you get a bit cold, depending on where you are, if you come out of your boat, if things go wrong. Grade VI, if things go wrong, then the chances are you’ll die. One of the things that I did was to say exactly the question you asked me, “What makes an extreme sport an extreme sport?”

The first thing we looked at is, if you take this as a continuum, the first thing is that they’re interacting in the natural world. The activity takes place in the natural world. That means the environment is not so constrained as a basketball environment, or a cricket environment. The environment is free. There aren’t lines and regulations to say, “This is in and that is out,” which is really important, because that’s part of the decision-making process, the problem-solving process. The second one is potential outcomes, or the most likely outcome if things go wrong is that you’re dead. You’re lucky if you get seriously injured, and people have been lucky, but the most likely outcome if things go wrong, and you haven’t been able to resolve it quickly, is that you die. That’s unlikely to happen in basketball.

I remember one participant, they were describing the difference between—actually, they used basketball because they were from the U.S., and their particular extreme sport. They said, “Imagine every time you’ve missed a goal in basketball, somebody shot you in the head. That’s the difference between extreme sports and basketball.” Basketball can be extreme, but perhaps we don’t want to play that game because we’d end up with a lot of accidents, and a lot of dead basketball players.

The last element, which is really, important, is that they’re independent activities in the sense that they are self-directed. You can’t undertake an extreme sport as what we understand as a teamwork activity, or it’s very difficult to do that, because in the end, most extreme sports, whilst you might have colleagues with you, once you make the jump in a base jump, or once you get on the wave in a big wave surf, or once you decide to go over that waterfall, you are on your own.

Mills: Some people tend to think of those who participate in these sports as adrenaline junkies. In other words, they have something that’s akin to an addiction. Is that notion accurate?

Brymer: The notion of addiction is really interesting. I won’t get down that pathway, I’m sure that’s for another day. If we take the addiction as something that is harmful to you, something that actually is bad for you, ends up damaging you in some way, then most definitely not, unless things go wrong, of course. Actually, what we find is for most participants, the reason they continue is because they get something so powerfully transformational and beneficial from it. That is akin to flourishing, thriving, is akin to all those mystical things that people search for. That’s why they keep going, because it’s that element of it.

If we consider it in terms of something about it that drives you to continue doing it, then again, it’s not a negative concept that drives you to continue doing it, it’s that more positive element. The more flourishing, thriving, high levels of well-being, the feelings of freedom flying, the ineffable, all those things that provides the opportunity to keep going. The other element which really indicates that it’s not akin to an addiction is that we find that extreme athletes are really keen to give back. They’re really keen to work for the environment that they participate in. We have extreme athletes, world renowned extreme athletes who travel the world, defending and trying to talk about the oceans, and how we should be protecting them, and looking after them.

We have extreme skiers going around the world, looking at trying to get people to think more carefully about climate change, because of what’s happening to the environment in the mountains. Actually, what we get is a really positive outcome from it. If we say that mindfulness-based work, or if we say that those things are addictive because they’re really positive, and powerful, and people want to keep doing them, then perhaps there’s some similarity between addiction. Where we are at the moment, the indications are definitely not.

Mills: Are there parallels between people who pursue extreme sports and people who pursue other types of extreme experiences, such as being a war correspondent, or a Navy Seal, or even a spy?

Brymer: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I haven’t researched spies, and things like that, so I don’t know. If anybody is out there who is a spy, who would like to be part of a research project, please let me know. If we look at a comparison between people who do extreme sport and people who do those other activities, there are some differences, in the sense that an extreme sport is, generally speaking, a leisure-based activity. If you’re lucky, you get sponsored to do these things, but for most people, it’s something they do in their own time. They earn their living, they do their day-to-day stuff in a different way, so they aren’t linked, they aren’t combined. There’s no necessity to do it. There’s nobody saying, “By the way, your job is to do this,” as in a Navy Seal, or, “Your job is to do this,” as in a spy.

There aren’t any of those outside forces that come into it that indicate that this is something that they almost need to do because it’s part of their work, part of what they’re supposed to do. That separates the two already. The second element is that there was some research some time ago that tried to use psychodynamic theory, and explain extreme diving through psychodynamic theory. I think they did a very good job at explaining why some people might do extreme diving, but actually, it didn’t really do a good job of why everybody does it. There are definitely people who get involved who might have particular issues outside, and they want to do these things, but that’s a very small percentage of people that get involved. I think the short answer to that is no, and for all sorts of different reasons. One is, for sake of example, if we take the personality argument, you’ve got to have a different kind of personality to become a Navy Seal, or to become a spy, whatever it might be.

I’d say, I’m not an expert in those areas at all, so I’m hoping I’m not commenting in a way that’s derogatory to them. We find within extreme sport, there’s such a range of personality structures, from the big five to all other personality sensation seeking ones, et cetera, that participate in extreme sports, it’s impossible to say that this personality is the kind of personality that will work in extreme sports. It’s probably easier to say that if something goes wrong, you may be likely to be a personality or type, but not to participate, not to do things well, not to explore what an extreme sport can offer. There’s all sorts of indications that actually, participating in extreme sport is not similar to some other activities where things might be dangerous, or they might require a particular way of behaving.

Having said that, there are also things that could be very similar, such as the sense of calm when you’re doing something that definitely comes across in extreme sports, and I can imagine as a spy, and as a Navy Seal, et cetera, you’d need to have a sense of calm in really dangerous situations. If not, things aren’t going to go too well for you. Extreme sports athletes have that sense of calm, and perhaps also a sense of—vulnerability is probably too strong, but surrendering to the moment.

Extreme sports athletes are very much, “I will control everything I can, but I know in the end, I can’t control the whole process. I will do whatever I can to prepare well, to be in contact with myself, to make sure I’m feeling okay, to make sure my parachute’s packed, or my board is appropriate, to check the weather, to do all those things around it, but once I leap, once I make the decision to go, in many ways, I have to just let go. I have to surrender to the moment, and be so much so present in that moment that I can interact with that environment so effectively that if things do go wrong, I can fix them. I can be with the environment enough that I can play with it. I can be in a dance with it, I can be working with that environment.”

I could imagine that’s probably very similar if you’re a spy, or if you’re a Navy seal as well. You plan what you can, but in the end, the environment also has a role in whatever happens, and therefore, you have to be totally attuned to the information in that environment, to make decisions in the here and now. That is very similar, I think, to an extreme sports athlete.

Mills: Let’s talk for a minute about fear. A lot of people might assume that these adventurers are fearless, but you argue that they actually have a lot of fear, and in fact, they need to have fear in order to do what they do. Can you explain that?

Brymer: Sure. We’re not quite sure of the nuances yet, but broadly, the idea of having no fear, that’s the only way you can do that, doesn’t work in extreme sport context. The reason it doesn’t work is because, if you have no fear, you’re not taking what you are doing seriously. If you don’t take what you’re doing seriously, it means you’re not going to pay attention to the real fine information in the environment, to yourself, et cetera, and it’s likely that things will go wrong. What we actually find is that extreme sports athletes take fear seriously, and in fact, fear is really important to them, in the sense that it’s saying, “Pay attention.” When you have that sense of fear, it means you take what you’re doing more seriously. You pay attention to all the cues, and the information, and the environment.

You pay attention to how you’re feeling. You really make sure that you’ve done all the preparation, et cetera properly. Fear, if you like, is a trigger to pay attention, or a facilitator to suggest that, “You need to take this seriously. This is something, if you don’t take seriously, can be quite disastrous, can go disastrously wrong.” We find instead that what extreme sports athletes are doing is learning to utilize fear as a way of saying, “Hang on a minute, this feeling I’m getting is suggesting something. What is it that’s going on?” It might be, for example, an extreme skier who is in that sense of being present suddenly gets a sensation. They can feel the sensation of fear, and they don’t know why to begin with, but maybe their perceptual systems have picked up a bit of a noise, or a feeling, or a smell, and then they can pay attention to the environment, and think, “There could be an avalanche,” and then they know what they need to do.

A base jumper might do something similar. They might feel the air and think, “Hang on a minute. I thought it was supposed to be doing this, but this isn’t quite right. Something is not happening here.” They might realize, “Actually, the air is going a different direction. The wind is going a different direction than I thought it was going.” All those little cues that are facilitated by fear are really important. It says, “Pay attention. This is serious, do something about it.” What we’re not quite sure yet is what happens first. The sensation of fear, obviously, there’s an element of picking up something in the environment, and that might be a sensation that comes into the body, that says, “Pay attention.” We don’t quite know whether it’s actual information that says pay attention, or whether it’s giving you a bit of a sensation that you then have to look out for information that says pay attention. That little nuance is not quite there, but it’s actually a really important element.

Mills: I’m wondering if interest in extreme or adventure sports has increased in recent years, or does it just seem that way because we’re seeing a lot more coverage of these things in the media and online?

Brymer: I think we are seeing more, which is definitely good, but actually, it has increased as well. A report done in the UK, there’s one done in America, there’s one in the UK, and there’s one done in China, too. In the UK, adventure sports are the fastest growing sport, so 55% of people involved in physical activity in sport are doing something adventurous. This was maybe four or five years ago. The U.S. has done something similar, and they see massive rises in adventure and more extreme adventures across the U.S. China, in a slightly lower level, has seen enormous increases in people doing things like mountaineering, and hill walking, and things like that. Millions of people doing it now, and India the same.

Partially, the change is due to the tourism aspect of extreme sports, the more adventure tourism element of it, where people can come and have these experiences. They may not have the skills and expertise to do it themselves, but they can do something in a context that means there is somebody who’s an expert in that area who can manage, rafting for sake of example, or group bush walking activities. Maybe you go on a three or four day camp, or something like that, so those activities are happening.

There’s definitely a massive increase across the world, as I say, partially driven by tourism, but also driven by recreational activities, too, people choosing to do it. That might also be why, even though part of it is to do with technology, but we see so much more, because more people are interested in looking at them, and watching them, and imagining themselves in those contexts, or dreaming of the next time they can go away and do that kayak trip, or whatever it might be. I think that’s a reciprocal thing. The more people do it, the more people are interested, the more they want to see more, and it goes on like this. It’s a bit of a spiral, an upward spiral, luckily.

It does have a downside. All this technology has a downside. The downside, for sake of example, is, you could watch something that is undertaken by an extreme sports expert, and you don’t realize that they spent 10 or 15 years developing the skills to be able to do what they’re doing. You think, “Oh, that looks interesting and exciting. I’ll go and do that myself.” To a certain extent, you can’t do the very extreme level yourself, because you don’t have the skills and expertise, and you wouldn’t know what to buy, but it does open up the potential for people doing things that perhaps they don’t have the skills and expertise to do. Technology has driven that to an extent. In my activity, whitewater kayaking, the one I prefer to do, when I started all boats were fiberglass. If you bumped in a rock, you’d have a great big hole, and you’d be swimming.

Once boats became plastic, you could bump in a rock, and it was a bit like a pinball machine. You bump on one rock, you bump on another rock, and you bump on another rock, and eventually, you find the way down. You don’t need the skills to do the things that you needed high level skills to do when I started. There is that element that we’ve got to be careful of, but otherwise, I think it’s a really good thing. More people are doing it, more people are interested in seeing these things, and therefore, that encourages more people to get involved, hopefully at a level that they can manage, and hopefully they develop, and get the skills, and maybe go on courses, to ensure that they understand the dangers, the challenges, all those things of participating in these sports as well.

Mills: Given the increased interest, do you think that adventure psychology is its own specialty, that it should be recognized as its own specialty, or is it just a part of sports psychology?

Brymer: Yes, that is a really good question. My feeling is that the difference between sports psychology and adventure psychology is as broad as the difference between sport and clinical, and sport and education, and sport and organization, or clinical and education. These are very different notions. They are very different notions for a number of reasons. One is that the idea of what an effective outcome is, is very different. In the sport context, it’s about winning. That has been translated, let’s say, into mountaineering, in the terms of conquering Everest. No extreme athletes would consider they’re conquering Everest. They know full well that, A, Everest doesn’t even know that they’re on the mountain, let alone that it’s a competition. They also know that if Everest did know that, they’d snuff them out in a second with the weather conditions.

The other element, of course, is getting to the top of Everest is not the goal. Getting back down again safely is the goal, whereas in a sport context, getting to the top would be considered the goal. That’s one thing. The second element that’s really important, as I said earlier on, is the fact that you are participating in environments that are not constrained by white lines. “That’s in, that’s out,” and all those things. There are elements within the environment that you actually have to determine, what is an appropriate way to move in this environment? There aren’t lines that say, “No, you can’t go there, because now it’s out.”

Of course, this most serious element, and there’s a few other things as well, but the most serious element is if things do go wrong, it’s not a matter of, “I’ve lost the game, never mind. We’ll train a bit harder next time.” You’re dead. There isn’t an opportunity to say, “I’ll come back alive, and I’ll train a bit harder next time, and I’ll give it a go next time.” You’re dead, you don’t have that capacity. They are very different activities, even though they involve physical activity. Even though there’s an element of having to organize, plan, train, in the end, I would say that sport and adventure are as different as sport and clinical.

Mills: Do you think that people who don’t necessarily engage in adventure sports, but do other things, for example, controlled adventures, zip lining, or some of these outdoor ropes courses, can they derive some of the same benefits that an actual adventure sports person achieves?

Brymer: I do think so, yes. There are elements that aren’t the same, obviously, because you haven’t set up the zip line, or you may not be an expert in determining how to tie a rope to an ankle if you’re going to do a bungee jump, or something along those lines. It still takes an element of knowledge of yourself, and trust in yourself. It still takes an element of being able to read the environment to the extent that you can decide whether or not you are actually in the right frame of mind to do this jump. There’s still some element of finding out more about yourself. To an extent there is, but what we’re finding very much is that there is also a lot of those activities that are very similar to the rollercoaster ride, in the sense it gives you an element of it, but it doesn’t give you that depth that you would get from an adventure activity.

One other thing to remember also is that in the end, human beings are designed to be adventurous. We’re not designed to be sedentary. We’re not designed to be careful. We’ve done a fantastic job at designing our environments, let’s say Maslow’s triangle is a metaphor, to make sure we get nice water, good health cover, a roof over our head. The problem is, the real essence of human existence has been designed out, as a result, from our societies, our cities, et cetera. The element at the top of that triangle, the idea where you’re getting into flourishing and thriving, et cetera, is not really designed in those environments.

If you look at traditional peoples, the way they lived their life, and the way everybody used to live their life was, “I wonder what’s around the corner? Is that noise a saber-tooth tiger? What decisions do I make? What’s the environment?” We used to live our lives in relation to the environment in the same way that extreme and adventure athletes do at this moment in time. Actually, adventure is a fundamental element of what it means to be human. Not being adventurous is where the problem is. That’s the aspect that we need to think very carefully about, not being adventurous.

Mills: Of course, our lives are longer now because there is no saber tooth tiger outside the door. What are the next big questions that you are looking into, as you continue this quest?

Brymer: The main area that we’re looking at at the moment is, we’re not at all suggesting that everybody should be a base jumper, or a big wave surfer, or something along those lines, or see it as their life goal to come back down safely from the top of Everest. We’re not suggesting that at all. What we are finding, as I mentioned earlier on, the indications are that adventure is what human beings are meant to be. We wouldn’t have gotten to where we are right now if we weren’t adventurous. The original human being wouldn’t have said, “I wonder what’s around the corner,” and we wouldn’t have expanded across the world the way we have. All of those things wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have an adventurous element in it. What we’re trying to do now is figure out, what aspects of adventure are directly linked to well-being, and how can we utilize those aspects to support well-being across the globe for people? For sake of example, we know, we have known for a long time, that physical activity is really good for mental health and well-being.

Adventure includes physical activity, so there’s an element of that in there. We have known, not as long as physical activity, and we’re getting a better knowledge of it at the moment, there’s thousands of papers, there’s more work to be done, but we’re getting a pretty solid understanding of how the relationship to human beings and the natural world enhances health and well-being for both planet and people. We’re trying to figure out what activities, what environments, and all those things, but those two, adventure includes those two. There’s something else in adventure as well, that you could argue is more existential, if you like. You could argue that it allows people to experience what human beings are really capable of doing. We call it a form of life, as in, there’s an element, a way that human beings live their life.

What I mean by that is, a monkey form of life and a bird form of life can both live in trees. They both climb trees, they both do all that stuff in trees, but a bird form of life can see a tree as a launchpad to fly. A monkey can’t. It might be able to jump, but it can’t fly. In the same way, human beings as a form of life have a capacity to experience and live in relation to the world around them, the natural world. We have gradually, over the years, trimmed that down for, all sorts of really good reasons. Maybe it started when we started a farm. Maybe it started when the industrial revolution came. Maybe it started when we became more modern societies, more concerned with health and living longer. Who knows when it started?

As a result, we’ve gradually chipped away all these aspects of what it means to be human. That means we aren’t really living the human life. That’s not to say we suddenly want everybody to die at 20, and we suddenly want everybody to do those things. Then there are elements of adventure in the natural world, whilst you’re being physically active, that actually could enhance people’s lives into their 70s, 80s, 90s. A really interesting program on SBS here, which is actually a U.K. program, by a doctor called Michael Mosley, and he started to look at what he called “aging” and “aging well.” The first program was all about a 79- or 80-year-old who is a parachute jumper, and he started in his early 70s, and he’s describing how his life has just expanded as a result, and how the way he lives his life has just totally changed, and the joy he gets from it.

For others, the adventure might be, “I’ve never played football in my life. I’m going to set up a local women’s football team.” We’ve had somebody interviewed there, and showed how that strengthened her bones. For others, it might be, “I come from a culture or society where women don’t do anything, let alone surf,” and there’s a lovely surfing organization in Iran, across those things. There are ways that we can tap into adventure, but what we would need to ensure is that the way we tap into it is going to enhance that benefit rather than take away from. We don’t want to tap into the wrong things. We don’t want to tap into the things, “You must go base jumping.” We want to tap into the things that allow everybody to get the benefits of adventure, and that’s the stuff we’re working on at the moment.

Mills: Well, Dr. Brymer, I want to thank you for joining me today. This has been really fascinating. Thank you.

Brymer: It’s an absolute pleasure, and thank you very much indeed for inviting me, Kim.

Mills: You can read more about the psychology of extreme sports in the October issue of APAs magazine, Monitor on Psychology. Go to our website at www.speakingofpsychology.org, and look for the links on this episode’s page. You can also find previous episodes of Speaking of Psychology there, or on Apple, Spotify, YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you’ve heard, please subscribe, and leave us a review. If you have comments, or ideas for future podcasts, you can email us at [email protected]. Speaking of Psychology is produced by Lea Winerman. Our sound editor is Chris Condayan. 

Thank you for listening. For the American Psychological Association, I’m Kim Mills.


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