Are thrill seekers hardwired to take risks? PhD candidate Cynthia Thomson studies the role of genetics, psychology and other factors in extreme athletes.
When Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a balloon from space and fell toward the Earth’s surface for over four minutes before deploying a parachute, some of us asked: Is he crazy? Not PhD candidate Cynthia Thomson. She thought Baumgartner would make a great research subject.
While we know that certain personalities are drawn to thrill-seeking adventures, Thomson is investigating whether something else drives this risky behaviour – do genes play role?
As an accomplished downhill skier and climber, it’s not surprising that Thomson fell into this line of research. Seven years ago she was completing the first semester of her master’s program – studying the affects of high altitudes on athletes – when her supervisor, Kinesiology professor Jim Rupert, asked a provocative question.
Athletes who take risks on the mountain were more likely to have a specific variation in the code of a gene involved in the regulation of dopamine.
“He wanted to know why my friends and I spent our free time climbing and going on outdoor adventures. Was there something genetic to it?” says Thomson, who is putting the finishing touches on her PhD dissertation.
She went home for the December holidays and came back energized and ready to switch thesis topics. She wanted to find out if there was a genetic factor driving people to take risk in extreme sports.
With no other work in this field, Thomson turned to research on other thrill-seeking activities like gambling and drug addiction. Scientists have found that the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a role in motivating us to obtain reward and seek sensation.
Just north of Vancouver is Whistler Blackcomb, a mountain paradise for skiers and snowboarders. For her research, Thomson went to the mountain to recruit 600 advanced athletes. She collected genetic samples and asked them to complete questionnaires to assess if they are risk takers.
She found that the athletes who take risks on the mountain were more likely to have a specific variation in the code of a gene involved in the regulation of dopamine.
Taking research to new heights
After exhausting her research in Whistler, Thomson took her PhD work to Chamonix, France – the birthplace of adventure sport.
“I wanted to find the people who live and breathe high-risk sport,” she said. “People land with parachutes in the middle of the street there. And this isn’t uncommon.”
She studied those who practise paragliding, mountaineering, skydiving, parkour, and BASE jumping. She’s been comparing these athletes to those who do low-risk sports like running, swimming or yoga. She’s also expanded her research to look at other chemicals in our bodies that have been linked to thrill-seeking activities.
“I think genetic factors play a role in influencing people to take risks in sport but genetics is a small part of what’s happening. Psychology and environmental factors are also important.”
Many of the athletes she interviewed would not consider themselves high-risk takers. Thomson says this is because they are not impulsive; perhaps the biggest difference between the risk takers she studies and gamblers and drug users.
“The people I work with are very good at their sport, and they would say they take very calculated risks.”
In gambling and drug use research, impulsivity and risk taking go hand in hand. Thomson is trying to understand this difference, as well, doing preliminary assessments of genes involved in serotonin production, a complex neurotransmitter that interacts with dopamine and seems to play a role in impulsivity.
Finding a positive outlet for risk-takers
Spending so much time reading about drug addiction and gambling problems, Thomson can’t help but think that sport could be a better option for those who are driven to take risks. She volunteers with an organization called Take A Hike that exposes youth-at-risk to outdoor adventures, helping them learn through these experiences.
“People are so passionate about sports. People take risks in other ways but I believe sport can be a positive outlet.”