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Excerpt: "Top Dog"

Excerpt: "Top Dog"

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Published by Sam Gale Rosen
Excerpt: "Top Dog"
Excerpt: "Top Dog"

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Published by: Sam Gale Rosen on Mar 06, 2013
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07/10/2013

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C h a p t e r O n e
Introduction / Parachutists andBallroom Dancers
1
Sc
holars didn’t get away with these kinds of experiments in the
United States. Why the University of 
Trier’s Ethics Board approved
 
of her experiment, we still don’t completely
understand.What we do know is that, at some point, Renate Deinzer received
her university’s blessing. And there
she stood
 — 
in the middle of a tiny airfield in the Mosel wine region of Germany
 — 
facing sixteenterrified people she had convinced to go skydiving for the very first time.
In a single day, each was going from “Total novice who had never 
 
done anything like this,” to“Mastering advanced free fall.”
 
Scaring people to death was exactly the point of Deinzer’s experiment.
She was trying to discoverhow the body responds to incredible stressors: she wanted to know if there was a biochemicalexpression of fear to match the frightened expressions she saw before her.Before and after their jumps, Deinzer asked each person to chew a small gauzy sponge and then spitthe sponge into a test tube. From these saliva samples, Deinzer could discern exactly how the acutestress of skydiving manifested itself, biologically: she could measure the telltale psychoendocrinecocktail of the skydiving rush.Three to four people went up in the small plane each time
 — 
buckled into the floor. Their hearts felt as
if they’d pound right out of 
their chests if not restrained by the straps of their chute packs.In just five minutes, the plane reached 10,000 feet in altitude over the drop zone. As nervous as theywere, for the greater good of science, none chickened out. As the plane slowed to a hundred miles perhour, one by one they climbed onto the rails and dropped off the trailing edge. They tumbled once,then stabilized in the arch position
 — 
their bellies and faces to the earth
 — 
free-falling at 120 miles perhour.For a long minute, the newborn parachutists felt the extraordinary sensation of hurtling toward thevineyards below.In a first free fall, people can get so scared that they forget to breathe
 — 
or they hyperventilate. Whichis a particular concern because at a 10,000-foot altitude, people already start to feel the effects of thereduced oxygen supply, and the air pressure alters how arteries function. If severe enough, this cantrigger hypoxia, a condition that results in temporary blindness and impairment in memory and
 
reasoning. The moment of pulling the ripcord to save oneself is sometimes so intense that, for some,they faint just as their canopy opens and remain unconscious for part of the flight down.
 None of Deinzer’s subjects experienced complications, though.
Hearing instructions via radio sets intheir crash-helmets, they were guided toward the landing strip, where most were able to glide instanding up.
However, this wasn’t a “Do this once and check it off the bucket
 
list” day. Instead, they had to do it
again
. Deinzer had asked each person
to make three separate jumps that very day: after they’d
landed, they chewed a sponge and waited their turn to go back up. For some, they did all three jumpswithin the span of a single hour.Why did they have to jump three times?Deinzer was also interested in whether people habituate to the rush of skydiving
 — 
do you get used to
it, such that it doesn’t trigger the
same degree of blast?
Analyzing the jumpers’ saliva samples, Deinzer wasn’t surprised to
learn that they had a huge rushresponse to the first jump. But with each subsequent jump, the rush was reduced by about a quarter.By just the third jump, there was still a pronounced rush of stress, but (on average) it was now only
half the first jump’s intensity. It was more
 
akin to the stress you get from driving in slow traffic that’s
making you late.Apparently, hurtling to the earth in a free fall is something you can get acclimated to, rather quickly.Now, there are many people who go skydiving frequently and love it. But if repeated skydiving
doesn’t reliably trigger a massive surge in
natural hormones
 — 
then
what’
s the ongoing appeal?Stephen Lyng is a scholar who studies
edgework,
a term borrowed from Hunter S.
Thompson’s
description of anarchic human experiences. During the 1980s, Lyng was a jump-pilot at a localskydiving center. He contrasted what he learned there from skydivers with what he learned later bystudying car racers, downhill skiers, combat soldiers, and business entrepreneurs. Lyng eventuallyconcluded that the true
“high” of skydiving, and other edgework, stems from the way skilled
 performance brings control to a situation most people would regard as uncontrollable. All of thesafety rituals used to minimize the danger (in situations of extreme risk) engender this sense of control, but
edgeworkers’ fundamental skills are the ability to avoid being paralyzed
by fear and thecapacity to focus their attention on the actions necessary for survival. The feeling of self-determination they get from
conquering the risks is the real payoff. It’s not pure thrill they seek,
butthe ability to control the environment within a thrilling context.
 Now let’s
compare parachuting against . . . ballroom dancing.
2
Hunter S. Thompson would never have described ballroom dancing
as edgework. There’s nothinganarchic about it. It’s not an “uncontrollable”
situation. Death is not a potential outcome.About 280 miles northwest of the previous study, this time near Dortmund, Germany, there wasanother scholar also interested in the psychoendocrine cocktail induced by vigorous experience.
 
Nicolas Rohleder was himself equipped with sponges to chew. In much the same way as in theskydiving study, he also analyzed results of subjects, comparing practice days and rest days tocontest days. But his subjects were ballroom dancers
 — 
for
the most part, couples who’d
been doingthis for years. They were competing in the Nordrhein-Westfalen Regional Ballroom DanceCompetition.There was no money at stake whatsoever, just bragging rights. Dancers had flown in from all overEurope for the fun. Held on a Saturday, the contest stretched for hours and ran continuously
 — 
withonly minor breaks for the winners of each preliminary heat to be announced. In the Modern category,the men wore white tie and tails, with their hair gelled back; the women were attired in silk andsequined ball gowns, with stage makeup. When they heard their number called, each couple joinedthe others on the dance floor, performed a slow waltz for about 90 seconds, then rushed off for adrink of water and waited to be called again. Next was a tango, then a Viennese waltz, a slow foxtrot,and a quickstep.During the competition, the couples were referred to only by their number
 — 
their names were notused until the final winners were announced at the end of the day. But this anonymity provided littlesafety; the sense that any mistake in their posture or floorcraft would be seen by the five judges waspalpable. Every gesture counted: the smoothness with which they stroked their feet across the floorduring the foxtrot; the staccato action of their tango; the extension of their ankles and pointing of their toes to enhance their line; the rise and fall of their waltzes.During each round, as well as in the hours prior and after, the couples chewed a sponge. By the end
of the night, Rohleder’s refrigerator 
was filled with almost 900 saliva samples.Back at his lab, Rohleder froze and then thawed the saliva samples, to prevent mold growth. He spunthe saliva samples in a centrifuge at 3,000 rpm, and then, with a pipette, transferred 25 microlitersfrom
each dancer’s sample onto an assay plate that had been coated with
goat antirabbit antibodies.He added enzymatic peroxide and antiserum to each sample, then rinsed away all the free-floatingmolecules with a phosphate bath. Transformed by the chemicals, the assay plate now glowed, eerily.Finally, a luminometer measured the glow strength from each sample, which gave Rohleder a preciseaccount of the chemical messengers of stress he was looking for.Just how much stress had the dancers been under?The pressure of ballroom dancing induced a stress rush just as strong as
someone’s second parachute
 jump. Many of the ballroom
dancers’ stress response was every bit as high as
a first parachute jump
.
Don’t forget— 
this
was not the dancers’ first competition, or second.
On average, the competitors hadbeen in 131 competitions, and they had been going to dance contests for eight years. Yet even withall that experience competing, plus thousands of hours of practice, ballroom dancing was stillenormously stressful.Rohleder ran the data, specifically looking for experience effects. He broke the dancers into threegroups, sorted by their level of experience.
The first group were the dancers who’d attended fewer 
than 80 competitions; most had just a couple years of experience. The second group had competedmore than 80 times, and they had been dancing for a number of years.

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