The first time that Mumbai-based Samar Farooqui tried walking on a highline, he froze. He was seconds away from stepping on to a tightrope stretched 12 metres above the ground. “My friend shouted from below, saying I could do it, and that brought me back to reality and I stepped on the rope.”
That was in 2013, in New Zealand — Samar today is a professional slackliner and trainer, and does highlining (slacklining at an elevation) at a height of almost 900 metres. He has also done free-solos (without harness). Still, he admits, that fear before the act remains the same as the first time.
What is it that motivates Samar, and so many others like him, who take up extreme adventure sports such as highlining, base jumping, cave diving and white water rafting? The answer might lie in our psychological make-up.
“First, we need to qualify what counts as extreme sport,” says Bengaluru-based psychiatrist Dr Shyam Bhat, head of Mindfit. With better safety regulations and technology, the danger a sport poses may decrease over time. There was a time when skydiving or paragliding was considered extreme, however now it’s a regular at vacations. So let’s define extreme sport as any form of physical activity that may result in grievous injury or death, if there’s any mistake, and leaves little room for error.
There haven’t been many conclusive studies that point to what behavioural factors could result in a person being predisposed towards taking part in extreme sports. Having said that, there are a few influencing biological and psychological factors, according to psychiatrists.
“Some studies show that people who are drawn to extreme sports have variations in certain neuro- transmitters and receptors, that make them more risk-taking. Another factor is the level of testosterone that the person was exposed to, while a foetus in the womb; more testosterone correlates with increased risk-taking behaviour,” says Dr Bhat.
Samar himself claims to have been “surrounded by adventure all my life”. “My mother has an NCC/Army background. She would take me on treks when I was a child. I have experimented with kayaking, surfing, rappelling and so on,” he says.
Moreover, the same risk-taking behaviour that may result in one person liking adventure sports could also reflect in another person taking, for example, financial risks, like investing in share markets.
“The various neurotransmitter systems that get activated in all these scenarios are similar. There is extensive literature to suggest that,” says Dr Senthil Reddi, Additional Professor, Department of Psychiatry at NIMHANS.
Focus and flow
Archana Sardana, India’s first civilian BASE jumper, can tell you that the very moment before she takes the leap, she clears her mind of everything, including thoughts of her two teenage sons, and husband. “If you are thinking of anything at all, you won’t be able to jump,” she advises.
Dr Bhat calls this reaching a “state of flow”. “The dopamine release that such activities provide could act as antidepressants. It’s a positive state of mind where you feel one with the universe, and that gives you peace and joy,” he says. Some meditate, some walk tightropes in the sky!
“When I am on the rope, it’s like I have achieved a state of nothingness. My mind is inactive, and my body working from muscle memory alone. Like I’m on auto-pilot,” says Samar. This also helps in cases where the brain needs a lot of stimulation to stay focussed, adds Dr Bhat. “Some people have a low tolerance for boredom, and high desire for novelty,” he says.
Or as Archana puts it, “Even jumping off a bridge can get mundane if you do it often.” Claiming she likes to keep pushing herself out of her comfort zone, she says that she first took to skydiving, then to BASE jumping, and is now looking for more exciting activities. Dr Reddi explains that the nature and pattern of this risk-taking behaviour escalates to achieve gratification.
While earlier literature focussed on the reward-seeking or thrill-seeking aspects in people, newer studies suggest positive aspects of extreme sports, says Dr Reddi, “Areas of cognitive function like focus and skill development are enhanced through these activities. Moreover, the element of danger could help them develop a greater connectedness with their own inner sense, with Nature and environment, and their own sense of existence.”
This contemplation about existence that extreme sports bring out, which is not generally in our thoughts, is its key attraction. “Why do we enjoy roller coasters? Why do we watch horror movies? The psychology is the same. All human beings deep down, have a fear of their non-existence, of death, and extreme sports is a way that some people confront, challenge and attempt to transcend this subconscious fear,” says Dr Bhat.
Even though by her own admission, Archana is the kind of person who is likely to take risks in other parts of her life as well, when she is taking part in any adventure sport, it is never without a certain level of preparation. “These risks are never random. I know I have to take responsibility for myself, and what precautions to take,” she says.
Samar too, spends hours training on the slackline; he runs a training institute Slacklife Inc in Mumbai. “Most people think that if you become a professional, you will overcome your fear. But I say that fear will always be there, and that’s good. Without it, I would be complacent and make a mistake,” he says. “Fear keeps me alert, and that keeps me alive.”