Some go to therapy. Some blog. Others drink.1
Everyone’s got a different method for dealing with the bigger queries in life. Who am I? Why am I here? What’s that smell?
For geeks like me—and probably you if you are reading this—we turn to science. Of course, it can’t answer everything, but I have found a lot of insight and comfort in the pages of scientific journals. I think every geek, and surely every science writer, has those topics they stalk, waiting for the next new study to come out. For me, that’s exploration, adventure and travel.
Society has huge misconceptions of adventure and risk. Adventure is viewed only from the Red Bull end point, a cool video of someone jumping from a bridge or a plane, off a roof on a skateboard or even from a spaceship. Merriam Webster defines adventure as “an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks.” It can take many forms—travel, sports, or trying new foods—but, for those who consider adventure an important part of the lives2, I’d say we are lucky enough to live in a time where it can be about measured risk. Rock climbing, for example, has its own set of protocols to keep its participants safe. Moving to the next level, say taking on a difficult climb, is only encouraged when the risks are weighted in the participants favor (he or she has done similar climbs, has the strength and knowledge, etc.) Basically it is about baby steps. No one should shy away from a good adventure of the right fit for them. And as you’ll see below, fear is not a good excuse to deny adventure.
Studies on adventure (and those who crave it) are unfortunately scarce, usually with small sample sizes (science speak, in this case, for number of guinea pigs or test subjects) which means scientists are wary of generalizing their findings to a larger population. Still, stalking the science of adventure has led me down some interesting roads. May I Present:
Three Things Science Tells Us About Adventure
1) YOUR BRAIN IS ADVENTUROUS
A UK study released in 2008 found that a part of the brain (ventral striatum) lit up in brain scans when participants made novel choices. Participants of the study were allowed to chose from a set of cards, each with a corresponding reward that the participants could easily discern. When new cards (and therefore ones of unknown reward) were introduced, participants were more likely to choose the new ones and bing, on went the ventral striatum.
The Good: “It makes sense to try new options as they may prove advantageous in the long run. For example, a monkey who chooses to deviate from its diet of bananas – even if this involves moving to an unfamiliar part of the forest and eating a new type of food – may find its diet enriched and more nutritious,” said Dr. Bianca Wittmann in the study’s press release.
The Bad: Gambling and drugs anyone?
The Ugly: This may be why “re-branding” works so well on us.
2) ADVENTURERS ARE NOT WHO YOU THINK
An Australian study of 15 extreme sports athletes—mountaineering, big-wave surfing, base-jumping, any activity “where the most likely outcome of a mismanaged mistake or accident is death”—were not fearless. Instead they saw overcoming fear as a key factor in their decision-making and a catalyst of personal growth. People who were truly fearless were seen by the athletes as “a danger to themselves and others,” said the paper citing an earlier study.
That is not to say extreme sports participants are just like everyone else. Other studies have indicated that these athletes test differently on personality tests, unsurprisingly scoring higher in the novelty-seeking category. The Australian study suggested one insightful way in which these athletes depart from the average Joe: they don’t see fear as a barrier to participation.
3) WILDERNESS PROGRAMS ARE LESS DANGEROUS FOR YOUNGSTERS THAN “REAL LIFE”
A New Hampshire study this past March looked at injury and illness data from 12 outdoor wilderness therapy programs. Picking out injuries that required the student be removed from the field for more than twenty-four hours, they found that in 2011 the programs had .11 injuries for every 1,000 days (one injury every 9,091 client-days). The estimated average for youngsters treated in hospitals in the “real world” was three times that rate. High school football injury rates were 140 times that.
Perhaps one of the co-authors on the paper summed up the best way to approach adventure: “The pill that we’re offering is the positive use of stress coated by appropriate levels of care and support,” he said in the press release.
 TRL does not endorse drinking and blogging.
 Of course there are people out there who take uncalculated and extreme risks. Sometimes for the good of exploration, sometimes because they’re insane. Either way, there’s a good relatively safe adventure out there for everyone.