Neuroscience of Mountain Climbing



How dopamine helps us accomplish our goals.


“You are such a badass!” My teammate screamed at 6:30 a.m. as we touched the sign on Uhuru, the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro. We cried cold, breathless tears as snot ran down our faces and hugged one another in disbelief. We were some of the most unlikely people to have reached the icy summit 19,341 feet above sea level. Although climbing Kilimanjaro requires no technical mountain climbing skills, it is still not an easy feat. The view of the world from the top of Kilimanjaro is among my favorite moments in my life.

“You are such a badass!” My teammate screamed at 6:30 a.m. as we touched the sign on Uhuru, the highest point on Mount Kilimanjaro. We cried cold, breathless tears as snot ran down our faces and hugged one another in disbelief. We were some of the most unlikely people to have reached the icy summit 19,341 feet above sea level. Although climbing Kilimanjaro requires no technical mountain climbing skills, it is still not an easy feat. The view of the world from the top of Kilimanjaro is among my favorite moments in my life.

Part of the thrill of reaching the highest point in Africa was the constant uncertainty of making it to the top. I am middle-aged, slightly overweight, and have a sedentary job. I prepared for the climb by joining Danes Body Shop and working out, but I am a long way from being “fit.” My bid for the summit met with numerous problems, not the least of which was the respiratory infection I developed after landing in Tanzania. Body betrayal is no stranger to anyone who hikes above 14,000 feet. Nausea, gas, diarrhea, altitude sickness, and musculoskeletal injury are common maladies at higher altitudes. If so much misery abounds above 14,000 feet, why do human beings still want to go up there? Part of the answer to that question is found in the brain.

Neuroscientists are learning more about how the brain is organized and how its 80 billion neurons affect us. Neurons are the cells are associated with cognition, emotion, communication and movement. There are many ways to talk about the organization of the brain, but the neuronal system that affects us most when we do difficult things, or accomplish a goal is called the dopamine-reward system. These dopamine neurons constitute .0000005 percent of the brain’s neurons. Dopamine is associated with our feelings of reward and it is also sometimes called the brain’s homemade methamphetamine. The brain uses dopamine to help control pleasure, focus, and decision making. Rare yet powerful, dopamine is released anytime an event goes better than expected. 

Because I developed a respiratory infection after arriving in Tanzania, my ability to reach the summit seemed doomed. Anticipation, pursuit, and uncertainty all potentiate the release of dopamine. Accomplish a sure thing—some dopamine is released. Accomplish something improbable--dopamine is released in heaps. 

Interestingly, dopamine is not just released when a goal is accomplished or anticipated; it is stored in the brain each time we pursue a goal (by training, paying money, buying the airline ticket, etc). In other words, if a helicopter had taken me for free to the top of Kilimanjaro, I would have found the view stunning, but my brain would not have released as much dopamine as it would have if I accomplished my goal of summiting. The longer and harder I worked toward my goal, the more I delayed gratification and made deposits into my dopamine investment fund. The higher the stakes, the more uncertain the outcome, the greater the dopamine. Everytime my daughter and I showed up at Dane’s Body Shop to work out, we were making a bet that we could make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro. When we actually reached the summit, it was the brain’s version of pulling the slot machine lever, seeing three cherries line up, and watching a superabundance of quarters flow out of the machine.

As I mentioned before, dopamine is Mother Nature’s version of methamphetamine. Of course, ingesting methamphetamine or cocaine can also give a big dopamine reward as well. The problem is that how we get our dopamine matters. The old fashioned way of getting a dopamine reward through investment, delayed gratification, and hard work reinforces our willingness and desire to tackle something difficult (like climbing Kilimanjaro). The complex and wonderful neural circuitry of our brains allows humans to do something no other creature on earth can do—work insanely hard for a long period of time, while delaying gratification until we reach the summit. The pleasure and satisfaction of accomplishing something like climbing Kilimanjaro can leave an indelible impression on us such that when we reflect on that past experience, we feel a new surge of dopamine. We smile to ourselves and say, “I climbed that mountain!” 

 

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